Active play and releasing tension

Active physical play. Dialling up connection, trust, dialling down tension and anxiety.

We do this naturally when our little dudes are little and portable. We have more access to the ‘love drug’ oxytocin in those touch-rich, cuddle-rich days. And it’s a perfect symbiosis, great for them, great for us. I used to make my little’un fly by lying down and holding her up like a ‘super-baby’ by supporting her with my moving hands and feet. We even had a theme tune…’Super-baby…flying though the air….Super-baby…in her under-wear…’ It was goofy, it was silly, and full of laughter. We both remember it very well.

But what happens as they string out and chunk up? Those angular, bigger bodies, they are still growing into, and those powerful processing minds that can anticipate threat and replay failure…when they flex their muscles in arguments – it’s much harder to find that easy repair through a heartfelt embrace. 
I was privileged to grow up in a household that was loving and caring, where we were held as little ones – but despite being war-time babies, the 60s passed my parents by and by the time the 70s came, those summers of love came and went. Certainly as a child I knew I was cherished, but from 8 onwards, there was a bodily distance in my working model of parent-child contact. I definitely remember being a love-lorn gawky 13 year old, with a meme-worthy mullet, and thinking that I couldn’t remember the last time I had been touched by anyone. (Apart from fighting with my younger siblings of course…but they didn’t count).

So whilst we are in lock-down, this edition is dedicated to unpack the art of rough and tumble play with our kids. I feel for myself, the time is good to revisit the possibilities here – especially with my little’un being on the threshold of adolescence. And feeling the toll of being more house-bound on my body….This is so multi-purpose. Exercise, fun, release of bodily tension (theirs and ours), bonding, growth, strength-building, strength-testing, resetting the ‘security system’ and reducing anxiety…
“Roughhousing, or rough-and-tumble play is the ultimate activity for anxious children because it gets them moving, builds bodily awareness, maximises playful touch, strengthens relationships, and unleashes the ‘creative life force’. That’s my term for the exuberant childhood energy that gets blocked by anxiety.” Dr Lawrence J Cohen, The Opposite of Worry.
This type of play builds a strong connection between parent and child – which is crucial for developing, consolidating, and reinforcing, that sense of security. It’s also a great way, as children grow, to build in discussion about consent, limit-setting, and boundaries. For it to work, and work well, it needs to feel good… and they need to feel they have power and control. So talking about how it feels, co-create what works for both of you. Be super-responsive to what they like and don’t like – and encouraging them to be the same for you- all these negotiations and creative collaborations help install the building blocks for great future relationships.

You might not have been in the way of doing this sort of activity for a while. And so it might come across rather weird to suddenly start suggesting. But take an opportunity, when it presents itself – eg on a walk – to suddenly break into a chase – or initiate a silly walk competition and see if there’s a response…If there is, it’s something to build on. Sometimes a spontaneous try can yield lots more fruit than planning and over-thinking. Then if it goes well, you can talk about other ideas for fun. 
Don’t assume that your superior / angry / moody / withdrawn / distant teen is totally beyond all this. Every milestone gained is also a loss. And many teens I work with look back with regret and sadness on the previous easy closeness they had with their parent(s) – even when they are in the throes of being truly poisonous. This is the secret that lies at the heart of the ‘big-me, little-me’ conundrum. To feel close, to experience intimacy, is to be vulnerable – and to be strong. That’s why the power-exchange, the playfulness of power dynamics in rough-and-tumble can be so powerful.

Even the most spiteful mother/daughter teen conflict or acrimonious father/son power struggle has its roots often in the security of a closeness that for now needs to be kicked away from…but also returned to. Teenage ‘splitting’ is a job of work. They need to separate, but stay connected. The quality of their attachment to parents is the single biggest predictor of all major benchmarks of wellbeing. It’s our job as parents, carers, mentors, teachers to help create access to many different routes to repair around the inevitable ruptures. Touch and the kindness of physical contact can wordlessly bring back connection for many. 
Caveat – there are kids who don’t like touch. Being cuddled against your will is trapping! it’s all about consent and finding what works and renavigating that path to being able to soothe by presence. So again, maybe it’s about finding the right sort of touch. A touch on the shoulder may be just right instead of arms around. 
Framework: start and end every ‘bout’ with a hug or high five. Look for games that build confidence, use the whole body and let them push you as hard as they can. Your job is to put up resistance to match their energy, by playful, beg for mercy, letting them win in the end. 
Avoid: tickling. It can end badly in so many ways. And increase anxiety.

Physical play ideas:

  1. Climbing your body. Stand face to face, holding hands, gradually stepping up as high as possible. Take it up a notch by keeping your kiddo’s head near your feet, so they are going upside-down with their feet to your armpits. Hanging out in this way sends the blood to the head and with it lots of rich neurochemicals, and the different perspective on the world is especially dynamic and mood-changing. 
  2. Force-Field hands. Face to face, palm to palm – but not quite touching. Start to ‘push’ each other gently, using the force field sensation rather than contact. Great for connection.
  3. Pushing hands. As above, but with contact. Matching their strength, increasing the force – notice where the points of balance / imbalance are. Add competition sumo-style by using a rug as a boundary. The first to get pushed off. NB no shoving. Great release to calm when agitated. 
  4. Back-to-back. Brace against each other back-to-back and see how and where you can move to. Can you manage to do a roll without breaking back-to-back contact?
  5. Comedy dancing – choosing a truly cheesy high energy song and trying to outdo each other in goofy exaggerated moves and facial expressions. Current favourites – Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ (of course)…and, less appropriately, ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’, by the legends that are Right Said Fred.
  6. Chase and miss. Chase them, let them get away just at the last minute. Even better when you ramp up the drama- collapsing to the floor, comic threats…
  7. Wrestling. Especially good for confidence building in older children. Match strength so they don’t feel overwhelmed or overpowered. Let them win, but make them work! the objective is to build confidence and security, not toughen them up. Keep ‘bouts’ short…great exercise for everyone. Make sure there’s lots of laughs.
    Based on Dr Lawrence Cohen’s book, The Opposite of Worry.
    What rough-and-tumble games to you remember? Do you have any corking physical games to share? Let me know. 
    Hopefully this gives you some ideas of ways to add variety and fun to family life. And remember – for parents who are very mindful of anxiety in our kids lives, these techniques may seem strange, unusual, different. Especially when we’ve got used to feeling their fragility. But this is why they can have a very special impact on anxious kids.  I see this all the time in school life, when I see drama lessons going on, physical warm-ups in PE. It’s what you see on the playground with young kids…It’s a superpower. 
    For more – see The Art of Roughhousing by Dr Lawrence J Cohen and Dr Anthony DeBenedet.

I hope you’ve found this helpful – and perhaps the catalyst for more fun and connection at home. For me it is also enabling me to work off some of the schnitzel and sachertorte from all that creative baking and cooking during the Easter break…as well as bring in some much needed laughter in between the stagnation of working in confined spaces and shifting through all the online lessons without the benefit of letting off steam at play-time!

I feel that bringing some physical play and joy into all our lives at home right now has so many benefits. Especially when all our kids and teens have only screens to interact on. So get off the screens, get into the garden, or the dojo in your living room and move, stretch, laugh and live more fully together!


Term has started again, and I am busy working with schools and workplaces to provide webinars for parents on how to make the most of the opportunities of family life under lockdown to work on enhancing resilience and performance.I am also continuing to offer coaching spots at a discounted rate to help parents or teachers look after their psychological wellbeing and relationships in uncertain and changing times.If you have any suggestions for future editions, or for parenting events for your school or workplace, or if you are feeling stuck in a difficult dynamic that you want to change, get in touch. Thanks so much to those of you who take the time to drop me a line about how the newsletters have resonated. It is truly touching and inspiring to hear your stories and reactions. And please – if you find this newsletter helpful, recommend to others. It really helps.With love and gratitude as always. Emma.

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