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Countering a Child’s Fears with Physical Play

Physical play is one of the most powerful tools you have in countering a child’s fears. You can change the life of a child, either as a parent or as an ally from outside the family, by setting up “special time”1 with a child and watching for what allows the child to laugh. Every laugh is discharge. Every laugh undoes embarrassment or light fears, and paves the way for the release of heavier fears at a later time. (But don’t force laughter with tickling. Tickling erodes the trust the child has in the adult and puts the adult agenda to “get laughter” in the driver’s seat. It’s not an avenue to true discharge, which comes spontaneously when conditions are right.)

Physical play can arise out of special time, if you pay close attention and immediately take the less powerful role when a child laughs. If you drop something, and the child laughs because you bumbled, bumble again. If you say a word wrong, and the child laughs, say another word wrong and be comically surprised and flustered. If a child laughs when you try to use a toy the child knows well, and you can’t get it right, keep trying. Try very silly things, one after the other. Be flustered. Be amazed that it doesn’t work right. Be very sure that you’ll get it right the next time, and then get it wrong. That sets the stage, and builds the safety, for more physical play. It helps the child trust you more fully and feel that you’d be a great person to romp with.

There’s more to say about how physical play releases fear. I’ll frame it with this context:

I was recently working with a mom whose son was four years old. He had been potty2 trained for a couple of years. His dad traveled frequently for work, and when he left on his most recent trip, the boy began almost immediately wetting and pooping3 in his pants. It was a sudden change, and totally unexpected. This is a common sign that a child’s fears have been restimulated enough that keeping them in check is costing the child his control over bodily functions. If he discharges the fear, he’ll be able to control his bodily functions again. His mind will be free to work well.

The mom had laid in a practice of doing special time with her son, and he loved physical play. She had built the safety between them for almost a year. So I recommended that she up the frequency of special time and physical play to promote laughter on a daily basis. In particular, I suggested bucking bronco rides and galloping horsey rides through the house, if they made him laugh. Anything to get things jouncing, jiggling, and jumping enough to produce laughter, but not so much as to elicit screeching. Over many years, I’ve seen evening sessions like this relieve bedwetting and bowel accidents in children, from toddlers to young people in their early teens. It’s a powerful healer of fear.

She wondered whether putting him in diapers for the time being4 would be a good idea or a bad one, a sign that he had regressed. I told her that, in my view, if a child isn’t being hurt further, either by scary events or by reactive adults around him, there is no worry of a setback. His earlier fears might be restimulated, or his father’s absence might be a fresh hurt, but we can’t easily distinguish between fresh hurt and restimulation of older fears. And, in any case, it doesn’t matter much. In either case, discharging on fear will help.

Putting him in diapers isn’t giving up. It’s simply taking a brief detour on the road to recovery. The reason to go ahead and use diapers again might be to save the mom from additional stress and aggravation, and thus keep the child protected from additional upsets. It might also save the child from worrying about himself or being scared about losing control of his bodily functions. So I told the mom that if she wanted to, she could take this step back. It would be like a parent allowing a child who was having trouble sleeping by herself to sleep with the parent while the child was sick, just to get through the rough time. Then, when the illness was over, the parent could go back to setting gentle limits and allow the child to have a good crying session about her fears of sleeping in her own bed. I told the mom she could explain to her child, “I think diapers are going to make it easier for us this week. Let’s use them again for now,” or, “until Daddy gets home.” Consistency isn’t required. What will be helpful is for the parent to think about the situation, come up with5 her best ideas, and communicate them to her child. A parent who thinks is deeply reassuring to a child.

That night the mom did a good, long physical play session with her son—lots of bucking bronco rides and horseback rides around the house. Lots of laughter. And her son stayed dry through the night. She was thrilled but wondered, “What happens in play that is such a powerful contradiction to fear?”

Here’s my picture of how this kind of play contradicts a child’s fear:

When a child is first frightened, and every time he’s frightened, his system records an experience of “I don’t know whether I’ll survive this!” That lack of confidence in his own survival blots out the presence of anyone else, blots out all sense of anyone helping, even if the child is actually being actively helped and protected through the whole experience. The child’s mind shuts down. Lots of sights and sounds and sensory data are being received and recorded, but they can’t be sorted because the “sorter” mechanism is interrupted in moments of danger.

So after the terrifying incident is over, the parent or other adult establishes a sense of safety through special time and kind, thoughtful treatment. Then, gradually or quickly, the adult begins to challenge the child physically with any kind of play that has the intent of physical contact and that brings laughter. Laughter comes when the balance is struck between feeling safe and sure, and safe and challenged. An adult might gradually initiate airplane rides, or bucking bronco rides, or horsey rides around the house, or might try to catch a child’s feet while the child is jumping on the sofa. In any case, the adult creates some kind of physical contest in which the play is slightly unpredictable, while maintaining the child’s sense of safety.

How you might do this is different for each child. Every time the child feels an unpredictable jostle from you, or a lunge for his feet, or a chase that leaves you in the dust while he emerges clever and victorious, he laughs. Laughter is the sign that you got the balance between a sense of safety and a sense of challenge just right. You weren’t too tame, but it still felt safe enough, and he won. He came through alive. He wasn’t hurt. He knows he made it.6

The laughter is a little “I made it!” release of tension. It’s a survival cheer—a release of fear of the lighter kind, but fear nevertheless. Play like this allows a child to relive a challenge to his survival, over and over, in a safe environment. He gets to release, over and over, the tension of not being fully confident. And as he laughs, he gains confidence—confidence in you, and confidence in his coordination, his awareness, his adeptness, his motor control, his balance. He gains confidence in all those physical skills that count when real challenges occur. He becomes more able in the world, and more resilient, more daring, and more coordinated, as the play continues.

When you’re playing, you watch where the laughter bubbles up. It will come somewhere on several continuums:

There’s a continuum of closeness. Some children can laugh only when you challenge them, and fail, from across the room. These children are pretty7 scared and need months of play like this before they can be sure of themselves at distances of a few feet, and then body to body. I worked with one child who screamed at the top of his lungs when I simply walked into the same room with him. It took about three years of weekly playful but brief contact, which only he initiated, before he could wrestle, but what gains he made in his confidence along the way!

There’s the continuum of predictability. If a child is very scared, or is very young and has little physical control or power, you have to play the same laughter game in pretty much the same way over and over again. A gentle game of peek-a-boo with a baby needs to be played again and again and again—with no scary noises, no scary faces, no running around with the diaper covering your head. That would be way too unpredictable. You play it the same way a thousand times, and you get nice rolling laughs every time. But a coordinated, reasonably confident nine-year-old would be bored to tears with a game like that. He needs a challenge tailored to his strengths. You will probably have to keep coming up with fresh ways to almost overpower him, fresh strategies to challenge him, fresh ideas for how to be comically sure of yourself and your victory over him, before you fail. He can handle unpredictability because he’s got more experience under his belt,8 and because he’s stored up confidence and mastery of his body and how the world works. His fears are contradicted by safe but sizeable challenges with your affectionate tone in the mix.

And there’s the continuum of power. With a toddler, you let the child tap your shoulder, and you fall over to peals of laughter. You let him throw a pillow at you, and it lands a foot away, but you fall over anyhow. You throw a pillow as though you want it to land on his tummy, but it falls three feet away and you moan that you didn’t “get” him. But with a confident nine-year-old, you let him thump you hard on your backside with a big pillow, and then you thump on him, hard, in return, to elicit laughter. The harder you thump, the deeper the laughter. You use about ninety percent of the force that the child uses in his play with you. Sometimes, for a brief few seconds, you might come back with a 110 percent power play, but then you let up9 and let the child take initiative again. You don’t trap the child, but you do create significant, affectionate challenges. And you show your delight.

When you don’t get the balance quite right, a child will stop wanting to play or will shriek or scream or laugh wildly at a high, forced pitch. When you get these signals, you know that you need to move back on one or all of these continuums. You need to move farther away, and/or be more predictable, and/or use less power, to bring the rolling, loose laughter back.

As the child’s counselor, you are creating a survival tableau—with the child at the center, laughing long and hard at every little challenge, and with you providing the image that he’s a winner, he’s a survivor, and you’re a struggler, a schemer, but a loser in the end. You barely survive his challenges, but you like him, so you are back at it10 again and again. You want him! You want this play! And that contradicts the isolation that always accompanies fear. That makes for a child who can tell11 that you love him, and who feels ever sturdier in the world.

Patty Wipfler
Former International Liberation 
Reference Person for Parents
Palo Alto, California, USA

1 “Special time” is an activity, developed in RC family work, during which an adult puts a young person in full charge of their mutual relationship, as far as the young person can think. For a specific period of time, the adult lets the young person know that he or she is willing to do anything the young person wants to do. The adult focuses his or her entire attention on the young person and follows his or her lead, whether the young person tells, or simply shows, the adult what she or he wants to do.
2 “Potty” means toilet.
3 “Pooping” means defecating.
4 “For the time being” means for the present, until some other arrangement is made.
5 “Come up” with means think of.
6 “Made it” means survived.
7 “Pretty” means quite.
8 “Got more experience under his belt” means had more experience.
9 “Let up” means lessen the intensity.
10 “At it” means doing it.
11 “Tell” means see, notice, perceive.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00