As parents of young children are struggling to cope during an unprecedented frightening and difficult time, they might be worried about how their children are doing. Stress is high as children no longer go to school or see their friends, parents are trying to work from home or are consumed with worry about unemployment, and everyone is aware of the impact of the pandemic.
Parents want to know: “How do I reassure my children that we are working hard to be safe and keep them safe? How will I know what they are feeling and thinking? What can we do?” A wonderful child development expert, Dr. Sally Provence wisely said once, “Don’t just do something. Stand there and pay attention. Your child is trying to tell you something.”
We are always trying to understand our children’s behaviors and the thoughts and feelings that drive them. Young children often mystify us. Sometimes they are so transparent it’s easy to see their thoughts and feelings. Other times they are perplexing, and we cannot make sense of their behavior. We are often pushed to ask them, “Why did you do that?” or “What are you feeling?” when we are most confused or frustrated with them and don’t understand what their behavior is communicating. During these moments, they are unlikely to be able to put into words what they are thinking and feeling, which ends up frustrating us more—and perhaps makes us feel inadequate as empathic parents. Young children do have very complex and at times very strong feelings. They experience happiness and joy, anger and rage, sadness and depression, excitement and anxiety. Some of these feelings can become very big and frightening to them and outlets such as tantrums or regression in their behavior are not effective to allow them to regulate and communicate their feelings. While their language is typically well developed, it is often not sophisticated enough for them to express more complex feelings or conflicts.
Imaginative play allows young children to express thoughts and feelings they are unable to put into words. Watch a child at play and you will see several common and universal themes emerge. Young children play about families and relationships, good guys and bad guys, monsters, growing up, and being a baby. They enjoy play with their parents and other children, but they also enjoy time alone playing out different scenarios that carry the most meaning for them. Children use imaginative play to assimilate difficult experiences, express feelings, repeat pleasurable experiences, release tension and energy and manage conflict and stress.
During this time when it appears everything is turned upside down, children find refuge and some control in their world of make believe. The possibilities are endless. They can play about medical personnel and first responders who are taking care of sick people; people or animals who are sick; children going to school and mommies and daddies going to work; and families who are staying home and feeling worried, angry, sad, and frustrated.
Children don’t need many props to engage in play that reflects how they are feeling and thinking about the recent change in their lives. Dolls or stuffed animals can easily become family members, teachers, friends from school, and doctors and nurses. Blankets and pillows can be used to make beds and doctor equipment can be made from cardboard. Books and paper and pencils or markers can be used to create a classroom. While children enjoy when their parents engage in make believe play with them, they also can play by themselves and create stories that reflect what’s on their minds. It is during these moments that parents can perhaps see what the “something” is the child is trying to tell them—or they can see the child has found a way to gain some control over a difficult situation.
Nancy Close, PhD is assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center and clinical director of the Parent and Family Development Program. She is a teacher, clinician, and an infant and young child mental health specialist. She teaches undergraduates and trains clinician fellows in psychology, psychiatry, and social work.