Regulate Emotions Through Play

emotional intelligence  mindfulness 

By Ashley Patek

Regulate Emotions Through Play

Raising two boys sometimes feels like being in the middle of a boxing ring. These tiny tots with emotions bigger than them come out ready to attack to protect their wants and desires. Today, the match was over a stick. Yep, you read that right. A stick. 

I could see the headlines: In the blue corner, we have Brainstem A. In the red corner, we have Brainstem B. Both sparring off to defend their title as (in their words) the ruler of the magical wizard wand that defends all of Earth (aka a stick in a yard full of sticks).  

Our logical adult brain may find ridiculousness in arguing over a stick. In fact, it was pushing me to my edge and I could feel me joining their energy as if their big emotions were contagious. My instinct was to yell, a desperate mama plea to make the stimulation stop. I got so far as to open my mouth but, instead of filling the space with reactive words to my trigger, like I have done many times before, I did something unexpected. 

I placed one hand on my heart and the other on my stomach, and I took a deep breath. And that was my pause. It gave me just enough room to notice what was happening without my biases, fears, and adaptations. When we can pause and be in connection with ourselves, we gain the emotional capacity to then be with our children in their dysregulation. Because, their behavior is not defiance, it’s development. 

Children are born with their threat-detection and emotional-feeling centers fully wired and ready to go. This is the lens through which they move from within their world, especially early on. They are dominated by the feeling parts of them, because the logical parts that are wired for impulse control, problem-solving, empathy, and emotional regulation are immature and not fully developed until the mid to late twenties. Like any other muscle in the brain, it strengthens as it’s exercised. 

So, how do you exercise a muscle as big, complex, and important as the brain? 

One word. Play. Simple, experiential, good ole’ play. Those forts that your children build … the pot they turn into a drum … the pretend game of house ... they teach our kids something special about themselves and the world at large. In this way, play is the foundation for which executive functioning and social-emotional skills can grow. 

Have you ever seen a child meltdown and then someone inserts a little silly and the child seems to presto come out of their toddler (or child) trance? It’s because play attunes the brain, pulling them out of their reactivity into a place of receptivity. 

Children know how to express their emotions, but they don’t yet know how to regulate them. When we can help them pause, notice their bodily state, and manage their feelings, we shift focus from stopping or changing behavior to teaching skills that 1) soothe protective responses and 2) wire their brain for higher-level life skills. 

And it starts with us parents, first pausing to notice our stress response to whatever is happening and then choosing strategies (with kindness and compassion) to regulate. When we model these skills, our children feel our presence and this is where learning and healing occur, for both of us. 

One way to do this is through simple and accessible mind-body practices called BREATHE - MOVE - REST.

  1. Pause - This helps us notice what is happening and creates space between our triggers and how we respond. 
  2. Breathe - We can change how we feel with our breath. 
  3. Move - Twisting your spine, going upside down, or moving in gentle ways meets your body where it is and helps regulate your nervous system. 
  4. Rest - When we take time to reflect, we are able to integrate what we have learned. 

This isn’t just for us adults. When we teach our children how to pause, breathe, move, and rest, we help them discover their power within to notice and change their feeling states, which means that we aren’t force-stopping emotions or behaviors but guiding children on how to regulate them. This process is done through co-regulation - us and our kiddos, side-by-side, learning and growing together.

 MoveMindfully

Teaching Mind-Body Regulation

Because I am a mama who is short on time and who finds Pinterest overwhelming, I looked for tools that would help me teach each phase of mind-body regulation. And that’s when I found 1) MoveMindfully’s Card Deck which uses affirming language to teach breathing, movement, and rest practices for social-emotional learning and regulation and 2) Generation Mindful’s Time-In ToolKit which teaches social-emotional learning through connection and play-based tools. 

While they offer differing products, their approach and resources are complimentary - giving adults and children tools that are based in mindfulness, movement, and social-emotional learning to nurture the adult-child relationship and promote self and co-regulation. 

1. Pause

  • For me: I found that using a trigger worksheet brought my pain points to the surface so I could recognize them when they were before me. In doing so, I was more conscious of them and could pause long enough to get to the next step (breathe).
  • For my children: I actually taught the “pause” to my boys during regulated moments via games and play. Freeze tag, freeze dance party, Red Light Green Light, telephone, and more helped strengthen their impulse control muscles. 
2. Breathe

The time to teach is not during dysregulation but during connection. I found the best way to teach breath is during a big dose of play. We became bunnies with bunny breath … lions with lion breath … bees with bee breath … birthday boys/girls blowing out our finger candles. And then, I slipped in belly breathing to slow things down using a BREATHE card from the MoveMindfully Card Deck. We talked about what each breath felt like in our bodies. And then, when emotions got high, I modeled breathing to help regulate everyone’s nervous system. 

3. Move

My boys and I created mindful movement rituals each morning to twist, squat, and get upside down. And here’s the really cool thing, as we practiced during regulated moments, they were able to integrate them in dysregulation, too.

MoveMindfully was our yoga teacher each morning as we took turns pulling a MOVE card from our deck! And because the pictures on the cards were real kids doing real movements, my boys were able to see little bodies (like them) doing it too, which not only motivated them but … monkey see, monkey do … those mirror neurons kicked in and they mimicked what they saw. 

4. Rest

In a child’s world where they are always on the move, and a mama’s world where I am constantly on the go, learning to rest was, surprisingly, exactly what we needed. We used Generation Mindful’s Time-In ToolKit to create a Calming Corner, and anytime we wanted a break or some together time, we headed to our cozy nook to read books, build with blocks, color, snuggle, or recharge our battery with a REST card from our MoveMindfully Card Deck. 

The ToolKit comes with colorful feelings posters, mantra cards, and playful activities to teach us about emotions and calming strategies … the same tools they were able to later access during challenging moments when their emotions bubbled over. 

With mind-body regulation and social-emotional learning tools, I was able to understand my triggers and model the exact skills I desire from my boys. And I have gained a better understanding that all behavior - theirs and mine - is communication. Taking the time to pause, breath, move, and rest, we were able to slow down enough to hear our body’s messages and give it the tools it was asking for. 

We aren’t perfect at it, and we likely never will be. But that is what makes us human. At least we know that we have each other - through all of it - the fun, playful gems and the challenging, hard moments. It’s us, together, me and them. 

•  •  •

Generation Mindful creates educational tools, toys, and programs that nurture emotional intelligence through play and positive discipline. 

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