Exercise Mental Fitness Through Play
Leading Emotional Dynamics expert, Erik Fisher, Ph.D., aka Dr. E…, has been changing the lives of children, teens and adults for two decades. As a psychologist, media consultant and author, his unique and creative approach to his work has earned him the respect and accolades of his clientele, his colleagues, and the media. On the radio, he has been providing interviews for more than 15 years on stations across North America and has been interviewed for countless print articles in magazines, from Parents to Cosmopolitan, and newspapers across the country from The Atlanta Constitution to the Chicago Tribune the the L.A. Times. Dr. E… has two published books, The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With and The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict: Understanding Emotions and Power Struggles and proposals for three book concepts. As he says, "Life happens for us, not to us, and understanding that is the key to our own empowerment."
Playing together with your kids is often the best way to connect with them.
Play can offer:
- An inside view into the way your kids see the world.
- An approach to learning strategy and teamwork, teaching “we vs. me.”
- An opportunity to listen without words.
- A valuable time to build resilience while balancing the joy of winning and the adversity of losing.
- A safe place to share your own life stories, talking about feelings, emotions, and experiences.
A recent Boston Globe article referenced a study from Harvard that addressed links between parents and children with mental health issues. One result of the study found that parents with depression are about 5 times more likely to have teens who are diagnosed with depression, and parents with an anxiety disorder are about 3 times more likely to have teens who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. For many parents who experience these diagnoses, this often also comes with a healthy dose of guilt, however, this does not help the problem and is not part of the solution.
Often emotions such as guilt, shame, failure, embarrassment are seen in our culture as bad, wrong, or weak and are to be avoided and hidden. If we, as adults, avoid sharing these emotions, then what are our kids learning from this and subsequently what will they do with their emotions?
I firmly believe that if we understood the positive purpose of emotions and what they are trying to teach us, show us, tell us, and do for us, our world would not consider mental illness, we would more consider mental fitness.
So, what does this discussion have to do with Play? Play is an activity that has the ability to change lives. It is one of our first activities as infants and should be a priority throughout our lives. Play helps us to learn, connect, create, bond, share, feel, but unfortunately, so many of us feel that as we grow older, we should play less and work more. Furthermore, many times we feel that play is for our kids and not for us, as parents.
On the contrary, in my work as a psychologist and my joy as a parent, I know that playing with your kids is often the best way to connect with them. Play can give you an inside view into the way your kids see the world. It can be a way to listen without words. It can be a way to teach your kids life lessons and resilience. And it can provide a safe place to talk about feelings, emotions, experiences, while playing a game. Kids often open up and will share emotions and/or attitudes while playing. What was shared wasn’t something that I was directly trying to pull out of them. It was something that came from the organic process, and I trust that process.
Another result that came from the Harvard research was that when parents shared some of their experience with their kids, it helped to normalize their experiences and helped them to connect to their parents. No matter their age, or what your kids may show you, your kids almost always want to please and/or have you feel proud of them. Our kids also want to be seen as good, strong, and/or right, putting up a happy front that may come down while playing and having fun.
Many times, parents may feel that they don’t know what to do or say when they are playing with their kids. For me, I remember what it was like to be a kid, and I let the child take the lead and then find a way to share in that process. In other words, don’t worry about right or wrong, just be present - understanding that the strength of building healthier attachments with your kids, while playing can have the potential to improve the symptoms of anxiety and depression. A simple game of checkers, chess, darts, throwing a football or playing with dolls can help a child and an adult feel connected, heard, and comforted.
I often play Chinese Checkers to talk about family and teamwork, because the best way to play the game is to take the time to move the pieces together in a way that allows multiple jumps. Sometimes the difference between “winning” and “losing” the game is in the first few moves, and often our situations in our families and life are affected by our first few moves.
If I can help someone see the value of teamwork and having a strategy of approach, then we can call that a win. While one can focus on who gets all their pieces to the other side of the board first, I often seek to focus on the journey of getting there and what I/we can learn along the way. If we can apply what we have learned from a game of Chinese Checkers to life, doesn’t that help our world feel like a less threatening place?
Keep in mind that even if you and/or your kids are not experiencing significant mental distress, consider that playing with them may have prophylactic effects toward preventing a slide into depression and/or anxiety. In my parenting book, The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With, I wrote about the importance of developing healthy attachments in our kids’ mental “fitness”, and for that manner, in our families’ mental “fitness”. What if we exercised our emotions in the same manner that we exercised our muscles? To know how to exercise our emotions, it is critical to understand what they do. We should see emotions as part of the game, part of life, rather than something to be hidden in the dark. Talking about emotions while on the “gameboard” can be a safer and better place than seeing their effect in the middle of life.