We all need play in our lives — including our teens, as it plays an important role in their growth and development. Psychotherapist Joanna Fortune outlines how to engage with young people through fun
Play continues to serve an important role in teenagers’ emotional development during adolescence. When they are afforded the opportunity — and indeed encouraged by their parents and other important adults in their lives — to engage in play, adolescents show evidence of higher levels of self-esteem, stronger self-efficacy and independence skills, and are better (emotionally) resourced to hold higher levels of resilience.
I am often asked if it is really possible to play with our teenagers and my answer is always a resounding yes. Not only is it possible, it is imperative in nurturing the surge in growth and brain development in this stage of childhood.
When we worry that our teenagers won’t want to play with us, often what we are really worried about is that we don’t know how to play with them. We worry that it will feel awkward, and so we avoid it. Well I do this for a living and have yet to meet a teenager who rejects an invitation to play or to playfully connect.
In my experience, playfully engaging with teenagers has worked, been well received by this age group and has brought about a meaningful change to behaviour, emotional expression, open communication and fun connection. I am telling you this not to seek to convince you but more to reassure you that it is possible and essential that we play with our teenagers and that we seek to connect with them in a playful manner. Play remains a language that will fuel connection and nurture your relationship with your teenagers.
This is an age when we are most likely to have stopped playing with our teenagers. Often it is parental resistance I meet when suggesting play between parents and teenagers because we struggle to imagine ourselves playing with our teenagers. We feel awkward, so we imagine it will be awkward and we avoid it, telling ourselves that they are too old for play.
Well, I have witnessed a marshmallow snowball fight in a home for the elderly with a group of women in their 80s and I can tell you that we are never too old for play. Moreover, we need play and playfulness in our lives, throughout our lives. Play fuels a fully lived life.
We must hold in mind that play is not a box of toys, nor is it even a sequence of activities. Play is a state of mind and a way of being. In order to playfully connect with your teenager, you must be playful within yourself. This is about grabbing opportunities for shared joy as they arise in your relationship with your teenager.
That being said, you will row with your teenager. That is a statement of fact and not something to be ashamed of or to avoid. The rows and tension are developmentally unavoidable but the key to strengthening and enhancing your relationship with your teenager is how you come back together after such a row. A playful state of mind enables us to use practical, playful and creative communication techniques to strengthen and enhance your relationship with our teenagers.
It is important to encourage our teenagers to find their voice and to be active and assertive in their own lives but it is equally important that we teach them the difference between assertive and aggressive communication.
Here are some examples of ways you can play towards stronger communication:
You can play this in a pair or have multiple pairs if you want or need to involve more people. Have two pieces of paper with instructions. One of you gets an instruction that reads: ‘The other person will make a fist with their hand. You must get their fist to open.’ The other person will get an instruction that reads: ‘Make a fist with your hand. The other person is going to try to get it open. You can only open your fist if they assertively and politely ask you to do so.’
What typically happens is the first person physically tries to pry their partner’s fist open using force and the other person responds by using equal force to resist.
This is a great game to emphasise the importance of asking for what you want/need rather than just seeking to take or grab it. It also highlights the value of good, clear communication over physical force.
For this activity you need to prepare three scenarios that require a response from your teenager. You also write ‘assertive’, ‘passive’ and ‘aggressive’ on individual slips of paper and put them into a bowl.
You will read out each scenario one at a time and your teenager must pick a communication style out of the bowl and respond in this way. You can guess the style they are using. It is good to reflect afterwards how it felt and what style they felt most comfortable using and what style might be most effective.
Your scenarios can be anything but should be relatable to your teenager’s life.
Here are some ideas:
- your friend is 45 minutes late meeting you and now you have missed the start of the movie.
- you are returning an item of clothing but you don’t have a receipt so the sales assistant is refusing a refund.
- your friends all think that you did something you didn’t do. You know the main person saying it was you is actually the one who did it.
Describe and draw
This is a fun game to play that supports communication too. Take two chairs and place them so that two people are seated back to back. One is identified as A and the other as B. A picks an object and must verbally describe that object without naming what it is. B must draw the object based on A’s description and see if the object can be matched/identified at the end.
Play is a great and very effective interactive way to support your child’s evolving communication skills. It is also a good way to strengthen and enhance your own communication with your teenagers in a way that is positive, fun and laughter-based and that keeps those doors of communication open.
Play also strengthens emotional fluency in our teenagers. If we want to connect with our teenagers, we must learn how to play with them. I believe in the transformative power of play in all of our lives. We can all play, but some of us need a little playful nudge in that direction.
15 Minute Parenting: The Teenage Years by Joanna Fortune is out on June 2