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Imagine this- you’ve planned a family game night and the kids have been looking forward to this all week. Pizza, M&M’s, soda! But only a few minutes in, you already have a kid who has stormed out after their sister put down a Wild Draw 4 card. All that planning only to have the night abruptly end with multiple children in tears.
In these moments, often parents will focus on using logic to try to help their kids: “Come on! It’s not that big of a deal. You can try again next time.” Using this framework, however, overlooks the value in connecting and trying to understand where the behavior is coming from. Getting curious about behaviors and wondering what is driving a child to act the way they are can be the first step in managing these big feelings.
The goal is to help children learn to tolerate discomfort. This can look like saying something simple like, “Winning must be very important to you, huh?” “I remember how good it felt when I would beat my mom at Candyland.” Statements like this help us to enter a child’s world in a way that removes shame and helps you to connect to their feelings; statements like this aim to validate and normalize what they may be feeling.
Implicit here is the ability for you as the parent to be able to manage your own feelings of frustration and, possibly, competitiveness.
Dr. Becky Kennedy, clinical psychologist, use the term “emotional vaccination.” She uses this term to refer to the process of prepping a child prior to a potentially triggering event. This means acknowledging someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. Before playing, you can say something like, “Oh man, losing can be so hard for me, but I know someone has to win. If I lose, I probably won’t be happy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a smart person. That doesn’t mean I’m less of a person. Let me take a few breaths to prepare myself in case I lose.”
Playing games with kids also requires the ability to hold a firm boundary with children. Setting boundaries and holding firm boundaries is tough work. Holding a boundary can be met with opposition and sometimes a meltdown. Holding a boundary can sound like “I know you didn’t like when your sister beat you. We will not continue to play if the game rules are not followed. Let’s take a break until and reset and come back to the game when we’re ready.” You may be met with opposition, though this can be an opportunity to engage in coping skills that you may already be working on implementing with your child.