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Wanting to go out and play with friends

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Your child wants to go outside and play with friends in the park. They’re very upset and not listening when you try and explain why this is not possible.

What’s going on inside? Your child is feeling frustrated and probably confused about all the changes along with new and unusual rules they’re having to follow. They’re cross because they can’t do what they normally do and are reacting to the new restrictions. Your child’s stress response system (fight/flight) is overriding the more rational parts of their brain. Their desire to have fun and their sense of loss over not being able to see friends is partially ‘blocking’ their ability to accept or understand why they can’t do what they want and see their friends. The social engagement system in our brain seeks social connection for security as our brains are ‘wired’ to connect with others. If this social connection is blocked or changes, such as via the COVID19 crisis, it can be upsetting for a child and triggers the survival stress response system. What is needed is an empathetic, soothing response from adults that will enable the child to feel calmer and help calm the stress response. Using logic and reasoning won’t necessarily work whilst they’re still feeling upset. When the child feels calmer you can work with and help to develop more effective use of their social engagement system, helping your child to ‘cope’ with the social distancing and diminished opportunities to physically play with friends. This support might include reminding them about more socially appropriate behaviours and suggestions for managing their difficult emotions. For more information about the stress response and social engagement system see 'Emotions, Brain and Stress'


Step 1: Recognise the child's feelings and empathise with them Notice what emotions might be lying beneath the behaviour your child is displaying: Behaviour: Your child is yelling at you and crying. Emotions: Your child is missing their friends and may be feeling a little lonely without them. They also might be feeling sad because they enjoy playing with others and this is not happening at home. They may be scared because you say no one is allowed to go out anymore and this is so different to your usual messages about going out to play. All their feelings have started to overwhelm them and turned into anger in order to make them feel less helpless. Step 2: Validate and label the emotion your child is feeling What you might do and say: ‘You seem really cross with me, you’re yelling because I won’t take you to the park. You maybe think your friends will be there and you want to play with them. I understand you love playing with your friends and you miss them now that you can’t go and play with them every day at school. It’s sad, because you all have so much fun together.’ ‘It’s normal to feel like this. I feel frustrated too as I can’t do the things I usually like doing and I miss seeing my work friends too. It’s all new and strange for us all.’ ‘I’ll just sit next to you and make sure you’re ok until your breathing starts to slow down a little and then you’ll be able to think better. (Adult models slow deep breathing, exhaling longer than inhaling).’ Step 3: Set limits (f necessary) What you might do and say when your child is calmer: ‘It’s hard when we have to follow different rules, especially new and unusual ones. Everyone is having to do things in different way at the moment. We’re all having to learn new ways to do things together.’ Step 4: Problem Solve What you might do and say when your child is able to think through things with you: Calming the physical/body response ‘We need to find a way of coping when we feel like this. When you’re feeling frustrated like this again, how about trying this, it’s what helps me feel calmer. I blow out a candle on each finger breathing in and out slowly each time’.

and/or Work with your child to figure out things they can do instead of going to see friends ‘Let’s look to see what other people are doing to help them feel better and cope with this situation [use reputable sites]. We are all finding different ways to play and meet up whilst we are at home. We can arrange online ‘meetups’ with your friends and then you can catch up with what they are doing in their homes. If you get good at online chat groups, we could do a quiz, so you can all have fun together?’. and/or Think of ways you can build their social engagement system One way of doing this is by making a positive contribution, such as helping neighbours, drawing rainbows, drawing pictures of people who are helping, joining some of the social media activities that families are doing. (Helping others triggers a release of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine which has the effect of boosting your mood and counteracts the effects of cortisol - the stress hormone. Interestingly, the higher your levels of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine the more you want to help others). “Is there something we can do that will let our friends know that we are thinking of them?”. Read more about Emotion Coaching

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