Laughter is the shortest distance between two people. – Victor Borge
Ever since she was old enough to leave me, my daughter has gone shopping with her dad on Saturday mornings. She loves it.
One morning, when she was two years old, she absolutely refused to get dressed. It was clear she really did want to go out, but as soon as I tried to put her clothes on, she would wriggle and run away. I tried reasoning with her, talking in a serious voice, and explaining that if she didn’t get dressed it would be too late to go.
It didn’t work.
I’m sure most parents of toddlers are familiar with a scenario like this. Our children can behave in ways that seem completely irrational. The question is what to do about it. The shouting, grumpy approach may work sometimes, but it comes with a sinking feeling that maybe this isn’t the best way to go about parenting.
In the heat of the moment, like any stressed-out parent, I sometimes forget there is a more effective method. All that rationalizing and reasoning is not the language of children. Their language is one of play and laughter. Suddenly, I remembered my training as a Hand in Hand parenting instructor.
I put my daughter’s socks on her hands and her trousers on her head. She laughed a lot, so I continued the game. Then I got her teddy dressed in her clothes, picked him up, and said, “Come on, R, it’s time to go!” When I got to the front door, I looked at the teddy and said, “Oh no! That’s not R, that’s Teddy!”
My daughter laughed and laughed. After a few minutes of playing like this, she was trying to dress herself. A short while later, she left with her dad, and I enjoyed a nice, quiet morning to myself.
Believe it or not, toddlers are not completely irrational beings. When children feel closely connected to the adults around them, they are naturally, good, loving, and co-operative. They don’t actually want to make our lives difficult. They want to get on well with us and co-operate with daily tasks. But sometimes their feelings get in the way.
When children experience stress or upset, they can no longer feel that sense of close connection. The limbic (the socio-emotional part of the brain) senses a kind of emotional emergency, and the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for rational, reasonable behavior) can’t function well. When upset, kids literally can’t think clearly or listen well to our reasoning. As a result, their behavior goes off-track. Their misbehavior is like a red flag they’re sending out to say, “Help, I can’t think! I need some connection!”
In these cases, parents need to speak the language of emotion. We need to have compassion for our children. We need to say goodbye to the old behavioral model of punishment and reward. Some parenting methods focus on manipulating the child for a quick ‘fix’ in the moment. Bribes, rewards, and manipulation also create a more transactional relationship, where both parent and child think about what they want to ‘get’ out of a situation. In the long run, these parenting methods actually make things harder because they don’t address the underlying emotional cause of the behavior.
That’s where Giggle Parenting comes in. It’s a fun and simple way to connect with our children when they’re out of sorts – and it works. Laughter releases stress and emotions, lowers blood pressure, stimulates feel-good endorphins, and builds connection between parent and child. When children feel well connected, they can think and cooperate with us again.
Giggle Parenting can be applied to many of the power struggles we face as parents of toddlers. My daughter went through a phase during which she would make a dash for it whenever her pajamas came out at bedtime. This was a sure sign she still had some energy to work off. Letting her laugh and play, and connecting with her playfully, helped us transition into quiet time. Factoring time for this into her bedtime routine helped her sleep more deeply, in part, because laughter releases melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep. Also, children simply sleep better when they feel closely connected to us.
Sometimes parents warn children away from laughter play. We all know the saying, “It’ll all end in tears.’’ (It’s worth bearing in mind that if a child gets upset shortly after laughing, or the next day, it’s not necessarily a sign of anything wrong in the present moment.) Tears have been found to contain the stress hormone, cortisol. This explains why children – and adults – may cry for what seems like no apparent reason; they are releasing stress. Tears might be triggered by an over-stimulating day or by any upsets, big or small, that they have experienced in the past. They may bring up feelings that have been simmering under the surface.
Listening and giving your child warmth and empathy during these moments prompts them to tune into your calm, loving state. They will learn to release their feelings and regulate their emotions, as long as you stay with them offering cuddles when needed. It won’t be long until they’re giggling again.
Giggle Parenting takes time, but it’s worth the investment. It gives children the sense that the adults in their lives are available for them. It focuses on building the relationship and releasing the feelings that get in the way of your child feeling closely connected to you. Fun and laughter could even be considered the currency of parenting. When we sprinkle it througout our daily tasks, life goes much more smoothly. You may even save time in the long run.
So the next time you ask your child to get dressed, have some fun. Laugh with her. Over time, she will internalize the deep sense of fun, love, and connection she shares with you, which can extend beyond toddlerhood, into the teenage years and beyond.