Your child also needs some “down time” to become more regulated and calm. Just as with movement activities, these quieter times include structure, engagement nurture, and challenge. So what are some downtime activities that promote connectivity with your child?
- Eating and drinking together can be a bonding experience. You can look at each other while you eat, make pleasant conversation, and, as already noted, even have fun feeding each other.
- If you are outdoors and your child is just eating a snack and is ready to get back on the playground, then spend about five minutes in some hand-clapping games while you are sitting.
- Reading together provides an opportunity to ask your child about the characters in the book and what each character may be thinking. If there are parent figures, you can ask your child, “What is the Daddy doing here?” What are some other things daddies do with their children?” What do you like to do with your Daddy?
- Putting together puzzles can challenge your child while you talk and create something together.
- Playing board or card games—remember those?—allows for challenge and engagement with your child. Of course, you have other things to do, so encourage your children and their friends to play simple board and card games together. This can promote sharing, winning and losing, as well as cooperation.
- When your child is resting, you may want to engage in body touching activities such as backrubs or just putting lotion on each other’s hands. When you do such activities, take notice of your child’s hands and count the freckles or other features, such as the nails. You can say, Phili, what cute little freckles you have; I can count three of them on your hand today. Tomorrow we will see if we can find more.” Encourage your child to also put lotion on your hands.
Screen Time is NOT Downtime:
A couple of times per day, you want to make sure your child has about 15-60 minutes of downtime—depending upon your child’s age and ability to have such low-activity. Playing on an Ipad , however, is NOT downtime. Yes, screen-time is definitely a break for you. And, let’s face it, every child is going to spend some time on their screens. So there is probably no need to feel guilty if your child spends less than one hour a day on electronic devices. However, the average child spends more than seven hours a day with these electronics. This amount of time is downright damaging. In addition, the games they play, no matter how innocent, can have an addictive nature and tap into the child’s brain’s pleasure center, increasing your child’s dopamine. Your child’s brain feels like it is getting a reward each time your child plays on the Ipad. So instead of getting pleasure from human interaction, your child gets pleasure from the online games. If that is not bad enough, research shows that the area of the brain where processing takes place, can shrink. A child from less than ideal circumstances already has more difficulty using their frontal lobe of the brain for such higher level functions such as planning and organizing. If this area of the brain is further compromised by the extensive use of video games, then your child can be further dysregulated—leading to angry outbursts, temper tantrums, and impulsive activities. In addition to the gray matter in the brain being compromised, the white matter in the brain is also compromised leading to problems in the connections in the brain. Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) can already have diminished brain function between the left and right brain hemispheres. Video games can further deteriorate this connectivity.
Initially, it is easy to have your child happily playing away on the Ipad while you get chores and other work done. However, there is a longer-term price to pay. For more information about the dramatic positive effects coming off of electronics can have for your child read https://drdunckley.com/2015/11/11/screentime-making-kids-moody-crazy-lazy/
And while we are discussing screen time, please put the phone away. Even if you are not looking at it while your children are around, just the fact that your phone is out and within sight causes anxiety in children. They know you could be interrupted any minute. Somehow our parents and grandparents were able to go to the pool and beach without them. Put yours away in a plastic Ziploc bag.
Special Activities for Special Kids:
Many of our adopted children who come from difficult places, have sensory and other issues that make it difficult for the child to engage. Attachment enhancing activities can still be done with your child’s special issues being considered. While I do not like to diagnose children, knowing what types of behaviors your child has (e.g., “My child is hyperactive at times and sometimes has difficulty paying attention.” instead of, “My child has ADHD,”) can help you gear activities with your child’s needs in mind.
For a child with attention and hyperactivity issues, try games such as “Mother May I.” Your child needs to focus on what is being said, (“Jump forward three times”) as well as actually following the instructions. For children who are newly adopted, this game can also reinforce listening to mom and obeying her as well as recognizing her as the “real” mom. The instructions can be playful and funny. Make your child laugh. You will too!
If your child has trouble sitting down, allow the child to have sensory gadgets to squeeze and hold while engaging in an activity. So while your child is being read to, let him hold one of these objects. Some kids also need chewing toys as well.
For a child who tends to be anxious, any exercise that encourages breathing can be calming. You may want to listen to some muscle relaxation on YouTube such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Calming music is also helpful if you can talk to your child about relaxing her body and helping her breathe slowly and deeply. If your child (and you) can actually do this five to ten minutes a day, twice a day, this can make a great impact on your child’s anxiety level.
To make these relaxation exercises more kid friendly, you can give your child a lemon and encourage her to squeeze the lemon enough to “make” lemonade. As your child squeezes the lemon, your child can also tighten different areas of the body, starting with the neck, chest, and working down to his toes.
If in the pool, you can blow bubbles for a certain period of time. Your child’s taking big breathes, holding her breath, and then exhaling is very calming and helps your child relax. Your child can blow while you count and then you can blow bubbles while your child counts.
To help your child feel more in control and to further reduce anxiety, let your child be a special hero who is able to conquer all sorts of “monsters.” Give your child a towel gently knotted like a cape and let your child play superhero around the pool. Make up the names of various monsters that your child can whack with a pool noodle. “I am going to whack the pretend boogie man who lives under my bed.” (Of course, if your child has never mentioned such fears, do not introduce the thought into your child’s head.)
For children prone to angry explosions, help them to recognize what their body feels like when they “blow up.” Do not try to discuss the situation in the middle of your child’s outburst. However, during a time when your child is calm, encourage your child to “explode” like a volcano in the water. He can jump out of the water and then growl. You can do this also. Laugh about your explosions. You can do this with waves in the ocean as they come over the child’s feet. Discuss how angry feelings can take over—just like ocean waves. Or you can make a volcano out of sand and fill it with water. Ask, “What does an ‘angry’ volcano do?” Let your child either have water spill over or perhaps destroy the volcano. If in the pool, have your child splash their arms in the water and make big splashes that represent anger. Then talk about what anger feels like. Then talk about the things that cause your child to feel angry. Share some of what presses your buttons as well. From there you can discuss things that the child can do when he is angry so that he does not feel like the hot lava coming down a volcano. You can ask your child if going to another room, talking with an adult, or holding a stuffed animal helps with angry feelings.
For children with disruptive behaviors, such as those who refuse to follow rules and who refuse to accept “no” for an answer, you can use a bottle of soda water as an illustration of what it is like to hold onto anger too long. Talk with your child about the things that make a bottle of soda water bubble up and then explode when you open the bottle (e.g., shaking it, turning in upside down). Then talk about ways to open the bottle so that the soda does explode. Then have your child talk about ways that make his bubbles get very excited and ways that he can settle down those bubbles so he does not explode (e.g., punching a pillow, talking with mom, or reading a good book).
For children with annoying behaviors, such as repetitive motions, getting into others’ space, or making inappropriate sounds, you can play games of things that annoy people and ask your child what annoys him. For example, you can both hum loudly and talk about how humming can be very annoying. Make fun of yourself. You can eat noisily and slurp your coffee extra loudly. Then discuss how these noises can be funny but they can also be ver….y annoying. Then get your kiddos to do the same. You may also want to write down some of these behaviors on a beach ball (see below), in which you put down other social skills on the ball (e.g., “chew with mouth closed”) and have your child talk about ways do the right behavior instead of the annoying one.
If your child has obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviors, you can place beans, seeds, or marbles in a bucket, and these can represent the OCD thought or behavior. If at the beach, you can put wet sand in a pail. You can say, “These beans/marbles/ beads/sand are what sometimes takes over your thoughts.” (Do not say to the child she has OCD.) Then have the child put her hands in the bucket and feel the OCD problem taking over her hands. Describe how easy it is to get buried in the thoughts and feelings. Now, you, the parent, are going to protect the child from these beads. Put your hands over your child’s hands so that the beads or other materials cannot touch your child. Another way to do this exercise is to put little toys in the beads or sand and tell your child the objects are the OCD. Then you will put your hands into the sand and help your child’s hands not to get “attacked” by the objects that represent OCD. You, as the parent, can remove the OCD objects.
While keeping the exercise “light,” and even have moments of silliness, let your child know you take her thoughts and feelings seriously. The idea is for you, the parent, not to be the enabler but truly be the protector of your child and to help your child control her thoughts so she does not engage in ritualized OCD behaviors.
Almost all children from difficult circumstances have experienced trauma. Some of this trauma is not remembered or was more subtle. Serious outward trauma may be played out or discussed over and over again by your child. Your child may feel at times that he is re-experiencing it. Other children avoid talking about the incident, no matter how safe they feel with you. Often these children will be clingy and won’t want you out of their sight.
You can make a special box for your child and put things in there that represents part of your child’s history. Your child can take these items out and talk about them. The story your child tells may not be about the specific trauma but about other events that took place. As your child becomes more comfortable, she may begin to share with you. Mellenthin,* recommends watching "Boundin" –a short film on YouTube that shows a lamb who faces adversity (getting shaved each year). After watching the video, you can have your child get a puppet or stuffed animal to replay what happened and how the little lamb (and your child) can bounce back.
You can have fun using beach balls to address many other issues including expressing feelings. Blow up a beach ball and on the ball , using a Sharpie pen, write as many feelings (e.g., sad, mad, glad, excited, disappointed) on it that your children can name. Then toss the ball. Whoever catches it selects the feeling closest to the right thumb. Have the child share what makes the child have that feeling. Of course, the adults who play also share their feelings. The rule should be that a new feeling is selected each time and each child has a turn. The game can be varied by hitting the ball with your heads, your thumbs, passing it like a volleyball punch, or hitting it with the feet or knees and then picking up with the hands.
A new ball can be blown up and on it you and your children can put on it social skills such as saying, “Thank you,” giving compliments, asking a question nicely, and staying in your own space. As noted above, you can also put down the opposite of annoying behaviors (e.g., quietly chew food).
The third ball can have coping skills on it, which may include deep breathing, doing jumping jacks, pushing the wall down, blowing bubbles, talking to someone, hitting a pillow. It is better if your children can be involved in coming up with their own coping strategies. Playing with the ball can be used to address other issues as well.**
Remember, you only have to get it right with your kids about 30% of the time to be a good and effective parent. Also, the more playful you are, the more you will enjoy your kids, and, in turn, you will be creating fun summer memories.
* Play Therapy: Engaging and & Powerful Techniques for the Treatment of Childhood Disorders, by Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, RPT-S, 2018.
** This was developed by Robert Jason Grant and is called Feelings Beach Ball: from Play Based Interventions of Autism Spectrum disorder and Other Developmental Disabilities.