Taking the Time to Play Helps Build Attachment and Strengthen Relationships Between Children, Parents

There may be no greater honor than when a child invites an adult to “come and play,” or when a teen asks, “You wanna hang out?” These invitations, with their expectations of mutual enjoyment, speak volumes about the relationship that a young person has with the adult. They come easily to children who trust their parent/caregiver and have attachment security.

But for children who have experienced developmental trauma or who have had multiple caregivers, that expectation of reciprocal engagement and fun is often diminished. The young person may have limited experiences of loving, close and joyful interactions with parents. In some cases, close interactions with parents may have required caution or were frightening. But even though your invitation to a child or teen who has had a difficult start in life to “come and play” might get rejected initially, there are many reasons to find ways to share joy and closeness with your adoptive or foster child.

Enhancing attachment. Attachment security develops in the first few years of life as a result of the parent consistently and accurately meeting the child’s needs for nurturing and socialization. Face-to-face play — touching, talking, rocking and singing, for example — develops attachment and the ability to provide emotional and physiological regulation through touch and joy.

Children will internalize their parent’s expectations and values through repeated joining and rupturing and rejoining in the play process. Eventually, this enhances communication and decreases ruptures in the relationship, both of which will decrease the need for discipline. On the other hand, children who have been neglected and/or frightened by their caregivers are less able to play in an attuned way, less able to seek and accept comfort, less able to offer and accept touch as an expression of love and affection. Spending time each day engaging face-to-face, and experiencing shared positive emotions can help to increase attachment security effectively. Because of attachment insecurity, the child may be resistant to intimacy, to physical and emotional closeness, and heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind interactions. Play is our covert tool to get around that resistance.

Increasing positive emotion. Chronic stress, trauma, abuse and neglect in the early years means that the child has had fewer experiences of positive emotions (calm, happy, excited) and more of negative emotions (fearful, hurting, sad, shamed, distressed). The balance is way off and as a result, the developing brain has been shaped by these negative, painful experiences to be biased toward feeling and expressing negative emotions. Play is one of the most effective ways to begin to re-balance your child’s brain. By engaging in face-to-face play, with shared attention and emotions, your child’s brain will have these repeated experiences of shared joy.

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At first, these experiences may be too intense and cause dysregulation. It is important to pace your play in intensity and duration — shorter and more frequent in the beginning — to match your child’s ability to sustain the positive emotion.

Improving your child’s ability to accept touch and comfort. The most effective way to soothe a child who is securely attached is to scoop them up, give them hugs and loving words of comfort. The securely attached child is able to seek and accept this comfort and is soon off and running again. Many adoptive and foster parents struggle with being able to comfort and soothe the highly dysregulated, distressed and distraught child who is attachment-compromised and filled with negative emotions. The new play experiences of shared joy, fun touch and physical closeness will assist in developing trust and allowing comfort through touch.

Supporting your child’s sensory processing and integration. Chronic stress and neglect can impair sensory processing and integration. Play involves all of the senses and when a sensitive and loving adult is the play partner, the senses can be engaged in ways that are not overwhelming or underwhelming to the child. Play begins where the child is at, and the child is able to enjoy the sensory input without defending against it.

Little by little, the child’s tolerance for certain sensory experiences grows and the child is helped to have sensations in a safe and controlled way. Sensory processing difficulties may dysregulate your child and when you cannot use touch and attachment to re-regulate, you and your child may have struggles to find ways to be calm and happy. A referral to an occupational therapist may be helpful.

Developing curiosity, the basic ingredient of learning. Solitary play is wonderful. It helps the child develop a sense of curiosity about the world and is the means by which children explore and learn about almost everything. Children who have been harmed within a caregiving environment are often fearful of the world and therefore not curious, not willing to explore or learn. Playing with your child will, as attachment security increases, support your child’s self-directed learning and curiosity. It is these skills that will, in part, enable your child to reach his or her potential as a student.

Developing your child’s pro-social skills. In infancy, children learn through thousands of face-to-face interactions with their loving parent. They learn to read facial expressions, vocal nuances and reciprocity (how what I do affects you and how what you do affects me). Sensitive parents know when to play with their baby and when to be calm and rest. This “feeling felt” deepens trust in the parent and in the relationship. Playing games, such as “Patty-Cake” and “This Little Piggy,” helps children to integrate touch of others and awareness of their own body.

Reciprocity, back and forth, give and take, become an integral part of the relationship. This reciprocity and give and take evolves into turn-taking and sharing. As the child grows, the ability to read social cues in the face, voice and body of others allows the child to develop empathy for others and to act accordingly.

Mary-Jo Land is a registered psychotherapist and play therapist from Ontario, Canada. She is past president of ATTACh and a trauma, attachment and adoption specialist. For more information about her work, go to http://maryjoland.ca.

If you are interested in reading more news, guidance, and information around developmental trauma, read our annual special issue “Healing Matters: A National Resource on Developmental Trauma” by clicking here

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