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Thinking About Home: Child's Play

--Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson

This is the time of the year that tends to unearth delicate feelings about those loved ones who are missing from the dinner table. During the holidays, it can get a bit tough for all, especially the children. They say, 'Home is where the heart is' yet, sometimes there are broken hearts in the family dwelling. We have dealt with a great deal of loss and the threat of loss. Now, add to this the whole crisis and family disruption of incarceration and fearing the possibility that life will never be the same. Children worry about their lives too. Children can be affected even if they seem to be playing as usual.

Child's Play

It is not just the grownups who think that life might not ever return to normal when someone you love is in jail or prison. Children can carry a tremendous burden of grief while not fully understanding how they feel. Their life may have changed, such as moving to a different home, changing schools, and even missing the familiarity of the past routines and structure. Additionally, young children do not have the history to remind them that they will get through this tough time. You as the adult must become the buffer to help them self-regulate and understand new and/or challenging emotions. You will be the one who offers them the reassurance that they can and will feel better one day.

Children may not complain or express their feelings because they may not have the developmental maturity to do so. Therefore, you as parents may believe that they are doing just fine based on their play habits. However, keep your eyes on the little ones because children generally communicate through their play. Only you as the parent or caregiver truly understand your child's normal social and interpersonal behavior and patterns. Remember, at all times and especially during the holidays to observe and check in with them.

It is Wise to Pay Attention

I recently spoke with a colleague on a podcast about how children process grief and loss. I mentioned that children make sense of the world through playing. I thought that at first blush, people may not immediately get the point. So, I explain this concept through the following fictitious examples:

Scenario 1: A child is seen cuddling a toy and emulating love, bonding, and warmth.

Scenario 2: Another child is seen kicking and pulling apart a toy soldier at its joints.

Scenario 3: While talking with the family dog, the child is overheard using harsh tones and repeated words that represent scolding the dog for not doing its homework correctly.

Each of these scenarios represents a form of play and highlight important reminders. In scenario one, the child shows their capacity to love and show empathy and warmth towards others. It is likely that this child has seen or felt the same conditions. However, in scenario two, the aggression displayed is a moment where a parent might inquire what is going on with the child. This can be a teachable moment. Perhaps, this is a time to ask the child how they are feeling. This is an opportunity to teach your child about feelings and emotions. It is also a time to reflect upon what is going on in the child's life. Sometimes anger appears as a result of pent-up frustration, fears, concerns, worries, and other unaddressed conditions.

Anger Explains What We Like and Do Not Like

A resource entitled, 3 Steps to Anger Management, found here might be considered a resource. In summary, the source indicates that parents can help children to learn that anger is an indicator of what they like and don't like. This is a good starting point for discussion. Anger might also be a sign of unaddressed frustration. Find out if your child is unhappy by asking the questions using age-appropriate language, then listen.

In scenario three, the child appears to be modeling problem-solving skills learned from someone in their setting. Children are watching and listening even when we do not think they are. Consider addressing the situation by having a discussion about behavior. Everyone makes mistakes. There is an opportunity to talk about right and wrong behaviors and consequences. Children have choices when they make mistakes. For example, in this case, the child may learn to apologize to the dog as one appropriate response. Together, with the parent, the child can learn and work through what is the preferred manner to deal with the dog who did not do his homework. We all know that dogs cannot complete homework assignments. However, it is possible in this scenario, that the child is emulating something that was said to them. We should always use age-appropriate consequences and never berate the children.

What Does All of This Talk Have to Do with the Holidays?

You might be asking yourself how do scenarios 1 through 3 have anything to do with the Holidays? Generally, the holidays cause many of us, including children to reflect upon family and bonding. When people are missing from their homes, it may bring up unexpected emotions. Children do not always understand these emotions and know how to express them. As a result, anger and frustration and/or acting out might appear, seemingly from out of nowhere. Be mindful and make a plan. You could talk to your children and have a plan in place to deal with emotions.

Finally, at DC Project Connect, we know times can get tough during the holidays. Be mindful and know that we are here to offer guidance. Simply send us an email using our contact form. We wish you all the best. Stay connected, join a support group, be well.


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