Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fun is Always Available

family playing board game Q: When I try to have fun times with my 10-year-old son (who has a trauma history), I hesitate because during games and activities, he gets frustrated and rude. It isn't fun for either of us.

A: One of the key elements that happens in families once the stress level rises, is a massive decrease in fun. In my BCI Live trainings and my Online Parent Trainings, I always encourage parents to find ways to put fun back into their families.

Yet, as the parent is describing above, this is not an easy task. Even when you plan fun and consciously make time for it, it seems as if your child does everything possible to sabotage the fun.

In these moments when the fun turns to frustration, it is too easy to have a response such as: "I have to teach this child to be a good sport,

otherwise he will never be able to function on a team. He won't be able to socialize and will always get shunned by his peers if I don’t fix this now."

This type of parental reaction is fear-based and it does not take into consideration why the child is acting this way. For children with a history of trauma, playing games inherently presents a threat of losing, and thus, the threat of someone else winning over them.

Here are four reasons why children can react so negatively:

  1. Small Window of Stress Tolerance. When a child is living only moments away from his/her breaking point, the child is incapable of demonstrating tolerance and patience. The child will blow-up over what the parent would consider "little things" and the child is challenged to see anything from another person's perspective.

2. Survival. When a child has a traumatic history, he will have experienced the intense feelings of being helpless, powerless, and hopeless. The result is a child who now lives in a place of "survival" and he develops an unbending commitment to himself to always win and never be vulnerable. Playing a simple board game will trigger this survival response. He "must" win...losing is NOT an option. It is a matter of life or death, no matter how many times you reassure that it is simply a game.

3. Belief System.When children are not cared for and their needs are not met (when trauma happens), they internalize these experiences as their fault. Internal negative beliefs develop such as:

- I'm stupid.
- I'm not lovable.
- I don't deserve fun.
- If I'm not perfect, my parents won't love me.
- I'm not good enough.

  Games and fun activities will bring these beliefs up to the surface and make the child feel horrible about himself. This negative belief system can instantly lead him to be rude and short-fused. 4. Fear of Intimacy. One-on-one play with a parent is an intimate experience. The parent, simply by being in the role of a parent, presents a threat to the child. The parent has the ability to reject and abandon this child at any moment. The child can't trust the parent--at least not yet--due to a history of vulnerability at a very young age. The child responds to this level of vulnerability by ruining the game. It is a simple philosophy: "If I ruin this game first, you won't have a chance to ruin me."

With understanding, patience, and adjustments, all four of these critical issues can be overcome.

First, expect the fun activity or game to be difficult (I know, that isn't much fun!). Such activities need to be viewed as teaching moments in the beginning. You have to overcome issues on several different levels. If you know from the start what your child can or cannot handle, it gives you, the parent, a greater amount of patience to start. You are also going into the activity with more realistic expectations, which will decrease your level of disappointment.

Secondly, redefine fun. Redefine how fun can be created in the smaller moments of your everyday life.

Since games are now classified as learning activities, look for other ways to create fun. Think outside the box, be creative, and look to activities already in your daily routine. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make the bed together but instead of the mundane, make the bed with your child still in it (or vise versa).
2. Hop on one leg as you two take out the garbage together.
3. Give each plate or glass a name as you empty the dishwasher together.
4. Play dance music while folding the laundry together.

Fun does not have to mean a day at Disney World or even a board game like Candyland.

It can't for your child. These activities--at this point in your child's healing process--are more than what his system can handle from the perspective of fun.

Stop and enjoy the moments within your child's capacity of fun and be creative. It is easy to push and expect your child to be able to do activities that the world considers "age appropriate." But so many of these activities are simply outside of his range. Trust that each small fun activity will pave the way to an increased capacity for larger fun activities.

Don't ever give up on fun. Simply modify and redefine what fun looks like for the present moment! Fun is always available.

Press on in fun,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

P.S. Check out my Ask the Expert Interview with Sherrie Eldridge, as she speaks out adoption, adopted children and how their parents are drawn closer. http://www.asktheexpertinterviews.com

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