Using Simple Dramatic Play to Build Emotional Skills
Frowning faces, furrowed brows, and grumpy expressions describes our family’s morning meeting on Monday (and Tuesday, if I’m being honest) as we launched into yet another week of homeschooling. Tired of the pressures of schooling during a pandemic, we are needing to rally all of the spirit we can muster on some of our days to get through the work ourselves while attempting to inspire our child to do the same. In our homeschooling, we are discovering the incredible learning opportunities afforded by dramatic play. In Language Arts, our son is writing, constructing and performing a puppet show, his own interpretation of a novel he just finished. And in World History, he’s going to be learning to converse with a friend in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter. Why not incorporate the big feelings of the moment into our learning too?
In fact, this idea of teaching about emotions through the dramatic arts is not novel at all. The Inuit families who live in the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia make the acting out of anger, our reactions to anger and it’s possible outcomes with their children a widely-used and accepted part of their parenting practices. In fact, Ethnographer Jean Briggs who lived and studied Inuit families reported “…something remarkable was going on in these families: The adults had an extraordinary ability to control their anger.”1 Evidence on how parents were teaching children about anger was found in the consistent healthy management of anger by adults in the community years later. And their formula was simple. When a child gets angry, so their tradition goes, it poses an opportunity to teach a child about how to react. Inuit parents will stop in that heated moment or revisit It later. They act out together how the anger feels from one person to the other including what they feel like doing with the feeling, and if/when they lash out, how it feels to other person, the consequences to the relationship, and how to repair harm if caused. There’s much we can learn from this! Check out the full article from National Public Radio here entitled How Inuit Parents Raise Children to Control Their Anger.
As tensions continue in our family lives, there’s an important opportunity of the moment if we seize it. The big feelings we are all encountering daily and weekly provide a common experience among adults and the children they love. What better chance do we have of teaching our children emotional intelligence than at a time when their emotions are running at a fever pitch? I know what you may be thinking now, reader. “How can I possibly teach emotional intelligence when I’m feeling overwhelmed, run down, and highly anxious myself?” Well, it’s a good question. And you can! Let me explain.
It helps to draw upon a research-backed framework that gives four essential factors of parenting resilience.2 They are:
- Social connection and support;
- Knowledge of parenting and child development;
- Social and emotional competence of children; and
- Ability to ask for and accept help.
This framework provides the hope that as you gain knowledge of your own role as a parent (you are doing that right now!), you can learn ways in which to promote your child’s social and emotional skills which, in turn, will offer you greater empathy, patience, and sense of agency and competence. In other words, you’ll have greater endurance for the marathon of stress we are now running together. Learning how to manage your own stress and teaching your children how to manage their own big feelings in healthy ways just may be one of the most significant opportunities of our time. Preparing this generation with the tools to be change-makers and agents of social and racial justice will require that social and emotional training.
Check out my simple ideas for transforming the drama of the moment into a vital lesson for the future.
- Invest in the Pause.
No matter what is going on, no matter your level of frustration, the pause is your best friend. It will transform any immediate reactions based on impulse that may leave you with regret later. Impulse and feeling happen instantly but thought takes a moment. So allow your reaction to be informed by your thoughts by pausing in the midst of the drama. Have a hard time stopping the escalation? Say “stop” or “time out” aloud — for yourself. This will assist your whole body and brain even when highly upset in taking that essential pause. Even better, agree with your family on a word or phrase (such as, “freeze”) you’ll say to each other when there’s a need to pause the drama.
- Ask, Listen, Accept.
Though we often think we know exactly what our child are thinking and feeling, we don’t. We may pride ourselves on knowing them best. Yet, the very fact that they are children or teens means that they approach life differently than we do. Though it may be tempting to assume, it’s important that we ask them what’s going on for them. Our fears and worries often are not theirs. But they can become theirs if we engage in projections and assumptions. So as you pause and take a moment to breathe before responding, be sure and ask, “What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” and listen carefully so that you address the problem they are perceiving. And then, whatever feelings they share, we need to be ready to accept them — even those that make us uncomfortable or annoyed. And there are those days when we are right on the verge of our own explosion when it feels like one more challenging feeling from our child will make us erupt. If we reach that near boiling point, go back to the start. Invest in the pause. Breathe. Write down your own feelings. Validate what’s going on for you. Then, return to your child to accept that their hearts are never wrong, that we accept their emotions helping them feel supported and understood.
- Brainstorm Healthy Ways to Respond – Together.
Working together to think of healthy ways to respond teaches your child that they have options in any problem and can take steps to feel better and make better choices. Generating ideas together also takes the heavy lift off of the parent to fix the situation or figure it all out. In fact, if the parent engages in fixes, they rob the child of their social and emotional learning opportunity. But co-creating solutions scaffolds their participation in learning about healthy coping skills and making responsible decisions.
- Reenact the drama.
When the heat has died down, create a moment to return to the drama for the purpose of learning. It may look a bit differently depending upon the age of the child.
For young children – Pretend play is a hallmark of young children and they are ready to engage in dramatic reenactments on a moment’s notice. So use this to help advance their emotional skills. Be sure and get down on your young child’s level to equalize power. This is important. Make it simple. “I’m so mad. I can feel my face is red. I feel hot. What do you look like when you’re mad?” Make faces at each other — the more dramatic, the better. Then ask, “What can we do or say to feel better?” Be sure that you think of options that cool the heat. In other words, don’t raise voices or throw pillows. Instead, hug a pillow, or get a cool drink of water. Discover together multiple ways to feel better.
Elementary-aged Children – You might ask, “What happens to make you mad?” Then, play act out the story your child offers. Whether it’s a classmate sneering at a joke your child makes or you telling your child to get off screens, you might offer, “let’s act it out and see how it goes.” Try out your own respective roles. “I cannot believe you are making me get off video games now! It’s so unfair!” And you offer what you might say in response, “It’s not right. You know the rules. You’ve taken more time than you are allowed anyway.” Now call, “Time out!” Stop the action. Ask some reflective questions about the moment. “What were you feeling in your body to indicate you were mad?” This raises self-awareness. You may share your own typical physical symptoms you feel when you’re mad as a model. ”I can tell my heart starts racing. I heat up too. What can we do to get to a better place?” Brainstorm together ideas for feeling better and addressing the problem at hand without placing blame or criticizing. And if justice is at issue, anger is a critical emotion to help motivate to action. Discuss what your child can do to right wrongs in ways that create fairness and respect.
Tweens and Teens – This age group is particularly interested in social dynamics and drama. So play on this interest. When friends argue or someone on social media gets mad, what does it look like? What does it sound like? Place your teen in the role of youth culture expert and learn from their experiences. Ask for the full story including what happens when a friend or social media icon “loses it.” What happens in the moment? And even more importantly, what happens later to their reputation? Then, play act It out. You might ask, “Show me how it sounds” and then, “Did this cause harm to you or others?” and if so, “What could this person have done instead?” Be sure and reflect back that anger can be a vital emotion for moving a person to change, to take action, to right a wrong, or correct an injustice. The question to ask then is, “How can you use your strong feelings to pause and consider how to bring greater justice, fairness and respect to the situation?”
We are living through times that produce big feelings for adults and children regularly. We can offer our children and teens a pathway to building strength and resilience if we teach them how to use their anger productively and constructively. Our world requires change-makers everywhere to turn around racial injustice and a global pandemic and it is necessitating our emotional courage. Take these small family fires as opportunities to teach your children that they can be change-makers today and you’ll help prepare them for a bright future.
- Doucleff, M. & Greenhalgh, J. (2019). How Inuit Parents Raise Teach Kids to Control their Anger. National Public Radio.
- Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). Framework for Parental Resilience; Protective and Promotive Factors; https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ProtectiveFactorsActionSheets.pdf