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 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).

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