Sometimes a storm may hit the family. It could be a bereavement, a change of routine or a general increase of stress when the winter months turn in. Children are sensitive beings and often pick up on stressful changes but may still be unable to communicate clearly about the emotional turbulence it’s creating for them, especially for under 5’s.
Sometimes trying to talk too directly about the source of stress or the emotions can feel a bit daunting or result in ‘nothing’s wrong’ responses. These can feel like you are at a dead end and not addressing anything.
At times like this, especially with younger children, it can be useful to use an in between distraction to take the focus off the child you are trying to get to open up, and focus onto something else. This slowly takes off the pressure to talk about something they may not yet even have the vocabulary to express.
One method I have used is family puppet making. The butterfly puppets above represented different family members. We coloured them in and played with them. Flapping the wings around. Then the free play evolved into a more specific game led by the child. Free flow non directed talking through puppets was part of the game. We had a pencil pot and added colours when we felt like it. Each night for about a week we played with the puppets in our pyjamas before bed. Allowing the child to lead and the parent carefully responding when needed.
We actually used this technique when the children’s grandfather died from cancer and everyone was feeling very overwhelmed in the household. It allowed our eldest son at the time to play different emotional roles, and the adult butterflies to nurture, rescue and play protecting roles in the butterfly in danger adventure game that was slowly created. Over the weeks and months, finally we all felt able to add more expressions on the butterflies faces and talked about why the butterflies were now smiling and what their colours and patterns represented. The puppet time had helped to gradually scaffold an emotional language, metaphors and scenes that helped our then little boy talk about his loss and questions about the future for himself and his granddad.
What you need:
- Uninterrupted time 30 mins a day
- cardboard from cereal boxes, scissors, colouring pens or crayons.
- selotape and a puppet stick or old pencil.
How to make butterflies:
fold the card and draw half a butterfly and cut out , open up to get a full butterfly shape. Colour in and sellotape down a puppet stick to hold in place.
Name them and play. Remember for this to work best it needs to be mostly child led play. The parent puppets role is to be nurturing and responsive when needed. Do this regularly to bond and develop a common emotional language from the sceneries enacted. Sometimes children can find it easier to talk about a puppets feelings and feel OK to talk about what a puppet could be thinking and feeling, then actually talk about their own worries. Using a puppet can help break down the steps of communicating needs and worries till eventually they feel more equipped and able to share directly.
We still play with our puppets many years later and it’s lovely to see how their colours and patterns have changed, and how our perceptions about them have evolved. Of course , you could make anything – dinosaurs, monkeys, cats, or cars!
Remember if you struggle to offer a nurturing role, because maybe you are still working through your own emotions or are juggling too many things, do get support for yourself. Go into the games with an open free mind. The aim is to spend quality time together.