How playing can reduce anxiety in children




Research suggests that children can become anxious if they have too little time for free play. Barnett (1984) assessed children on their anxiety levels on their first day at nursery school. It was found that the children who were able to play freely had lower levels of anxiety than those who had to listen to stories. This supports the view that play allows children to work through their conflicts and anxiety.

The case of Dibs, a 5-year old boy who showed very disturbed behaviour shows the importance of play for dealing with issues (Axline, 1947). Dibs was referred to Axline, a clinical psychologist specialising in play therapy, for very disturbed behaviour. His parents thought he might be brain damaged. Axline watched Dibs’ play carefully to look for emotional reasons for his disturbed behaviour. Dibs often played with dolls that represented his family and in one instance, he buried a doll representing his father in the sand. This was interpreted as hostility towards his father. Axline was able to uncover Dibs’ conflicts and problems through the therapy. Dibs’ relationship with his parents improved as did his behaviour at school. Dibs IQ was tested after the therapy and he scored in the top 1% of the population. By then he had no emotional difficulties.

Sloan (1999) examined whether play therapy could be used to reduce aggressive behaviour in children in New York. The study found that play therapy is effective for reducing aggressive behaviour.


How can a parent use play at home to deal with anxiety?

Parents can use toy figures and role play to work through fears and other issues with their children. For example, if your child is worried about going to the doctors, you can role play doctors with them or encourage them to play doctors with their dolls or teddies. If your child is frightened of the dark, you can pretend that a toy figure is being put to bed in the dark and your child can talk about their fears. Another toy figure can be used to dispel fears. Any monsters or ghosts that turn up in the role play can be changed into something non-threatening. You can get your child to imagine what the toy figures/dolls would do if they were very brave (Jay et al., 1987).


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Want your child to read more? Read ‘The Fortress’, a fantasy  adventure story aimed at 7- to 10-year-olds.


How do you deal with a competitive child?

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My 8-year-old son is naturally competitive. I can relate to this as I’ve always been pretty competitive myself although I try to hide it!

I have often told my son that it doesn’t matter whether he wins or loses and that it’s the taking part that counts but I know that this statement goes in one ear and out the other.

Recently, he said to me that he didn’t want to go to a football party because he was afraid how he would react if he was on the losing team. He said that some of the other boys taunt him when they win and he finds this difficult to handle. When he told me this, we talked about strategies to deal with his emotions.


Rather than tell him what to do, I asked him to think about ways he could deal with the situation himself. He said that he had tried in the past to say that it didn’t matter when he was being taunted but it hadn’t helped. We went through a few scenarios, which involved more conflict so in the end, I suggested that he make an excuse to go to the toilet if he started feeling angry.

One of the things I do with my son when he gets worked up is practise mindfulness. Here are a few techniques I have used:

  • Lie down and imagine all the things you are happy about. Now imagine them coming down on you like a shower of happiness.
  • Visualisation: Softly close your eyes. Allow the picture in your mind to become blank. You are going to imagine a place that feels comfortable, safe, and relaxing. Think of your place. It might be the beach, a lake, or even your own bed. Imagine it slowly appearing before you, becoming more and more clear. Look to your left. What do you see? Look to your right. What is over there? Look closer. Breathe in. What do you smell? Walk around your place. Look closer at certain things. Stay focused on your place. How are you feeling? If you find your thoughts wandering, observe them, and then focus on bringing the image of your place back into focus in front of you. (Allow some time.) When you are ready, put your hand in front of your eyes. Open your eyes. Slowly spread your fingers to allow light in. When you are ready, slowly remove your hand.
  • Bubble meditation: Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Softly close your eyes. Imagine bubbles slowly rising up in front of you. Each bubble contains a thought, feeling, or perception.See the first bubble rise up. What is inside? See the thought, observe it, and watch it slowly float away. Try not to judge, evaluate, or think about it more deeply. Once it has floated out of sight, watch the next bubble appear. What is inside? Observe it, and watch it slowly float away. If your mind goes blank, then watch the bubble rise up with “blank” inside and slowly float away.


Another technique I try at bedtime when he finds it difficult to sleep is a body scan. This involves asking him to focus us on different parts of his body at a time starting at the feet and working up the body to the head.

I’m pleased to say that my son enjoyed the football party he went to and there were no arguments.

In addition to teaching my son relaxation techniques, I make sure that I don’t ask him about the outcome of any football, rugby or chess game too much. He recently went to a chess tournament and instead of asking him whether he won or lost the game after each match, I asked him whether he enjoyed it and whether it was a good game. The focus on the process of the game rather than winning or losing hopefully takes the pressure off him.


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Want to get your child to read more? Read ‘The Fortress’, a fantasy adventure story aimed at 7-10 year olds.

How can parents improve children’s behaviour?

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Do you want to improve your relationship with your child? One way is parent-child interaction therapy. There are two parts to the therapy. The first part is improving parent-child relationships through play and the second part is learning how to use commands effectively to improve behaviour.

parent and child playing

So how can parents adapt this for use at home? You can start by telling your child that they are going to have 30 minutes or an hour to play whatever they want with you. It is important to let your child take the lead rather than choosing the activities yourself. For example, try not to say ‘Let’s play with the trains next.’ Don’t direct your child and don’t ask too many questions such as ‘which animal is this?’ Instead, listen carefully to your child and reflect back what they say. For example, if your child says ‘I like to play with spiderman’, you can say ‘Spiderman is fun’. You can also copy your child’s play. For example, if your child is putting furniture in their doll’s house, you might say ‘I am putting furniture in the doll’s house, just like you.’ This teaches your child how to interact with other children and that you approve of their play. It is important for you to be enthusiastic so that your child feels you enjoy playing with them. Try to praise your child during the play time and avoid criticism. Only stop the play time if they become aggressive or destructive. Try to ignore other misbehaviours such as playing roughly or whining.


Once you have started playing with your child in this child-led way, you can start changing the way you give commands to them. Use direct commands with your child, rather than indirect. For example, you could say ‘please, put the lego in the box’ rather than ‘let’s tidy up.’ Tell your child what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. For example, you can say ‘Please, sit here’ rather than ‘stop jumping on the sofa.’ Only give one instruction at a time and be specific. However, always give commands in a polite and respectful way and avoid shouting orders at them. Your child may try to delay obeying your commands by asking ‘why?’ but is better to save explanations until after they have obeyed your instruction (Bell and Eyberg, 2002).

Related Links:

The importance of family meals

How to deal with tantrums

Choosing a nursery

Should I let my child cheat at boardgames?

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Between the ages of 4- and 5-years-old, children should be able to abide by the rules of a game but it is not until 6- to 8-years-old that they learn how to be good winners and losers. Therefore, parents need to handle playing games with young children carefully.


‘Should I let my 4-year-old daughter win when we play snakes and ladders?’

4-year-old children are able to understand and abide by the rules of a game such as snakes and ladders but they are going to have trouble losing. Therefore, there are different strategies that parents can use to keep games fun. One strategy is to offer your child an advantage such as being allowed to throw the dice twice rather than once or being allowed extra throws of the dice if you are ahead. Another way is to change sides or counters during the game every three moves. Alternatively, you can play until everyone gets to the end and everyone wins the game. As your child gets older, they will want to play by stricter rules to make the game more challenging but while they are young, it is a good idea to remove the competitive element of the game.

However, if your daughter tries to cheat during the game such as changing the number on the dice or moving their counter ahead, then stop the game as it is important that they learn not to cheat. Explain to her that cheating is not okay and that it stops the game being fun. You can reward your daughter with a sticker or some other kind of token at the end of the game for playing fairly.

Mindfulness at school session 1


Mindfulness in school-Session 1mindfulness meditation teenagers

Today I did my first lunchtime session on mindfulness with a group of teenagers at the school I teach at. I had 30 minutes so time was limited. I started with a test to measure perceived stress levels, which I found free to use on the internet at I wanted to get the students to do this test so that we can see if there have been any changes in their perceived levels of stress after the mindfulness sessions have finished.

I then gave the students a questionnaire to get them to think about what might be causing stress. This included a list of things that might be causing them stress such as parents, workload, examinations, friends, appearance etc. and they had to circle the things that were causing them stress.

To introduce the concept of mindfulness and its benefits, I did a PowerPoint presentation. The presentation included evidence from psychological studies to support mindfulness as I wanted to convince the students that it could work at reducing their anxiety and stress. I discussed how mindfulness helps us to focus our attention so that we can control our thoughts and emotions. Many of them said they had problems with reacting too much to what other people say and that the reason they had chosen to come to the mindfulness sessions was to deal with their anger better. I said that mindfulness should help them be less reactive to situations.

After the presentation, I decided to do a sitting meditation with the students. I followed the following script:

Sitting meditation: Students were asked to find a comfortable position to sit in, which encouraged alertness and relaxation. I told them that their backs should be straight but not rigid. I then asked them to close their eyes and read the following script:
‘When you take your position take a moment to settle into your body and become centered before you bring your attention to the sensations and movement of breath through your body. The mind may wander frequently during mindfulness meditation and you can gently redirect your attention back to your breathing. Focus on your breath for two minutes before moving on. Shift your attention to your bodily sensations. Take note of the contact your body has with the chair or floor and the sensations associated with this. Notice the sensations in your body without judgment, just accept them and reflect on them with curiosity and interest, even if it is unpleasant. Bring awareness to any urges you may have to relieve discomfort, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. Do not act on these urges right away, instead just observe the discomfort with acceptance. If you decide to move then do it mindfully, by observing the intention to move and the change in sensation as a result of moving. You may bring awareness to your environment and listen mindfully to the sounds around you. Notice the volume, tone and duration of the sounds without analyzing or judging them. Observe the periods of silence between the sounds also and then redirect your focus to your breathing.
It is okay if thoughts come into your awareness as this is normal activity for the mind. Observe the thought content briefly without becoming absorbed and then gently return to the breath. You may do this many times over, but what is important is that you observe and accept the thoughts and then return your attention to your breath.
Similarly, with emotions that come to the forefront, just observe the type of emotion you are experiencing (such as sadness, anger, boredom) and then redirect your focus to your breathing.
I then asked the students to continue bringing their attention back to their breath for two more minutes.

At the end of the session I encouraged the students to find a quiet spot where they wouldn’t be disturbed and do a 1 minute sitting meditation every day. I suggested they use a stop watch to time the minute. I reinforced the idea of bringing their attention back to their breath and said that with practice they would get better at it.

The students seemed very positive about the session at the end.

Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.

Should drugs be the first line of treatment for ADHD?


English: A child not paying attention in class.

English: A child not paying attention in class. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently a mother was questioning whether drugs should be the first line of treatment for her daughter who had been diagnosed as having severe ADHD. The mother was reluctant to give her daughter drugs and was also surprised by the ‘severe’ diagnosis.
Many doctors can be too quick to give out drugs for disorders despite their side effects and it is important for parents to discuss alternative treatments.
Drugs can reduce the symptoms of ADHD such as impulsiveness and distractibility but they can’t cure it. Side effects include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and stomach upsets and not much is known about the long-term impact of the drugs on the developing brain. ADHD drugs can also make children listless and withdrawn.
Parents can ask their doctor whether it is possible for their child to have cognitive behavioural therapy instead. This works by getting the child to understanding how their thoughts and feelings are linked to their behaviour. They are also taught how to change their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
It can be difficult to manage the behaviour of a child with ADHD so parents often benefit from attending a course that teaches discipline techniques. Some parents may feel reluctant to attend a parenting course but it is worth trying first before giving a child drugs. Such courses can really improve communication and relationships within the family.
Other treatments for ADHD include social skills training and family therapy. Social skills training works by teaching children appropriate responses to different social situations. They are also taught how to deal with their thoughts and emotions so that they can modify their responses to other people. Family therapy involves looking at whether communication patterns and relationships within the family are contributing to a child’s ADHD symptoms. Parents have to be willing to accept that their behaviour might be affecting their child’s behaviour for the therapy to work.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.


Is ADHD really on the rise?

Should all children get a prize on sports day?


egg and spoon race

egg and spoon race (Photo credit: shingleback)

The summer term is almost at an end and many schools are holding sports days. Traditional egg and spoon races, beanbag races and sack races are being held across the country all in the name of fun. However, sometimes what should be a fun competition can also bring tears and frustration to young children. Nowadays in some primary schools, all the children are given a prize for taking part and the emphasis has been taken away from winning and losing. Many parents say that it makes a mockery of a sports day for everyone to win. They argue that children need to learn that they can’t win all the time and to deal with failure.

So should schools being giving prizes, medals and certificates to all the children on sports day? Or is a little competition healthy for children?
Research shows that competition can cause arguments between children and lower self-esteem whereas cooperation tends to build relationships. So perhaps schools are right not to emphasise winning and losing. However, schools would benefit from introducing cooperative games on sports day where teams of children have to work together to achieve a task such as building a den. Team-building exercises build relationships, which is one of the reason why companies spend so much money on these kinds of days.
If traditional competitive races are to be used on Sports Day, teachers and parents should prepare children better for winning and losing. Even if the teachers give prizes to everyone, the children often know themselves whether they have won or lost, which can sometimes result in tears. Lessons can be given on how to be a good sport, for example, children should be taught not to boast when they win a game. Young children need to be taught that everyone wins and loses sometimes and that the most important thing is to be a good sport. If children are prepared in advance for what they might feel when they lose and how to manage those feelings then they are less likely to feel anger and resentment if they do lose a race.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.

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