Power reversal games - How to Solve Behaviour Problems with Play.
What is power-reversal play?
Attachment play is a core aspect of Aware Parenting, founded by Aletha Solter Ph.d. These ways of playing with our kids supports them to release and heal from stress and trauma, strengthens our relationship with our children and helps to solve behaviour challenges, all while having fun and laughing together. Aletha identifies 9 different types of attachment play, one of which is power-reversal play. In this type of play, the normal direction of power between parents and children is reversed, so the child gets to be the stronger one, the more powerful one, the more capable one.
Why is power-reversal play important?
Being a child is often frustrating. Even when we raise our kids with conscious, gentle, aware parenting, there are still times when our children feel powerless, when they don’t have choice or autonomy and when we make our children do things that they don’t want to do. So it is the perfect antidote when we allow them to have the power for a while and this creates more cooperation and connection. In addition, power-reversal games:
- Support our children to release and heal from stress and painful feelings that are often the cause of their challenging behaviour through laughter.
- Are particularly effective to support our children to release feelings of powerlessness and reduced choice.
- Meets their needs for connection and light-hearted fun – for us and our children. Parenting often feels like a difficult and challenging responsibility and learning to respond to our children with play, brings a light, relaxed and fun vibe to counteract the seriousness of parenting.
- Meets their needs for autonomy and choice, which are often missing for children.
- Supports us to reconnect with our children when we have been angry with them.
- Reduces aggression and harsh behaviour as it provides a safe outlet for them.
How do we do power-reversal play?
We invite our children to play with us and reverse the roles so they lead and are in control. They get to be the strong one, the more capable one, the winner and we are less powerful, weaker, less capable, incompetent and we get it all wrong. Then our children get to laugh at us for how wrong and silly and slow we are!
These games can be played in the moment when our children are behaving in a way that is challenging and uncooperative or can be done to heal frustration and powerlessness and reconnect with them to make challenging behaviour and lack of cooperation less likely.
These games are excellent for children of all ages, so you can adapt them depending on how old your kids are. Here’s a list of games you can try:
- The copying game – they tell you what to do and you copy them. Could be as simple as just following their lead or we might deliberately get it all wrong and do a “bad” job! For older children this can be done with music and dancing – where they get to make up moves which we copy badly, or we make up really silly moves for them to roll their eyes at us for! The added bonus with this game is all the eye-contact which strengthens connection even more.
- Pillow fights – this can also be with any age. The key is for them to knock us over and for us to exaggerate how strong they are and how unfair it is. It brings even more laughter if we beg them not to do it again and make them promise not to and then turn our backs!
- Push-off the bed/rough-housing. This is so much fun to play. We can judge how much resistance to give them as they push us, eventually of course, we end up on the floor all inept and clumsy. Again we can say “you can’t push me over/off the bed. There’s no way you are strong enough for that” and then act all amazed when we let them do just that.
- Swing and Kick game. This is another classic where we push our kids in the swing from the front and then pretend that they are kicking us as they swing forward and we fall over elaborately. “Promise you won’t kick me this time will you?” in an exaggerated tone will add more fun.
- Remote Control Game. Give your children the remote control or let them make up a devise that they can use to control our behaviour. They can make us run, fall over, make farty noises whatever gets them laughing and we pretend to be outraged that we are not able to stop them.
- Promise me you’ll never. This can be played anywhere. In the car it could be “promise me you won’t sing that song you know I hate” or at home it could be “promise me you won’t get off the couch if I just quickly fall asleep here for a moment”? Then again we act all outraged and in pain when they do that exact thing and we can beg them to stop and tell them how terrible they are while they laugh at us!
- Your Majesty game. Tell your kids that they are the king or queen for a little while and you run around at their beck and call, trying to fulfill their commands, all the while saying “Yes your majesty. So sorry to make you wait your majesty. What else can I do for you your majesty?” This is a great one with teenagers too!
- Chasing, Racing losing. Here we chase or race our kids, insisting that we will be able to catch them coz we are the fastest in the family and then mock surprise and dismay that we just can’t catch them.
- Toothbrush in your nose. This is a great game to play when we really want our children to do something like brushing teeth. We get it all wrong though and put the toothbrush handle in our nose or brush our hair with it saying “oh I’m sure this is what you’re supposed to do with a toothbrush isn’t it?” A variation of this game is when getting dressed and putting their t shirt on their feet or putting your bra on his head. They will laugh and tell us how silly we are for getting it all wrong.
- Pretend to be angry. We can pretend to be annoyed with them about something and act very obviously that we are pretending. This is a great one to help healing and reconnection for times when we have lost our temper with them. Just make sure it’s clear that it’s pretend anger by being ridiculously over the top.
- Hair salons. This is a good one for when our kids don’t want their hair brushed but we do. Set up a mini salon and be very over-courteous – “hello madam, welcome to the salon. What can I do for you today? So sorry to have kept you waiting madam. Can I give you a foot massage too to make it up to you?”
- You drive today. This is particularly good when our children are resistant to getting in the car seat. We rush to the car and buckle them into the front seat and try to clip ourselves into their car seat.
- We are rubbish at this. This is another good one for children of any age. With young kids we can act incapable and “bad” at any game that they are playing. With older kids it might be tiktok dances or anything that gets them laughing at us making mistakes.
- Rugby Scrum. Our children push against us and we push back against them but allow them to slowly push us and win.
- Follow the leader. An oldie where the kids take turns to lead and we have to follow behind and copy whatever they do.
- Not allowed to laugh. Great with lots of eye contact and either we are making them laugh by being really silly and then pretending to be annoyed – “no you’re not allowed to laugh” or they make us laugh while we insist that we will be able to not laugh and then end up laughing!
- Feeding me blindfolded. We have a blind fold on and the kids get to feed us small tastes of whatever food they want (we might set a few rules in advance on this one) and we exaggerate how gross it is or try (and fail) to guess what it is. This is especially good if there are control patterns around food.
- Can’t read properly. We get a book out to read to the children and then read it upside down, or start at the beginning and then say “the End. Goodnight” or make up silly characters half-way through. With older kids we might add a few swear words or silly sentences or get the characters to say really out of character type things.
- I’m Scared. In this game, we just pretend to be scared of everything that our children aren’t scared of. It can be anything – a hairbrush, a toy, a puppet. We just mock being really frightened and beg our children to protect us.
- Ordering in the Café. In this game we make lots of silly mistakes when we are out at a café. “Can I order a whiskey for the children and I would like a toilet water milkshake thank you”.
- Magic Wands. Your children make a magic wand and then get to make magic with it while you make it happen.
- Please please please play with me. This is a great game to release tension and stress for us too where we beg and hassle and totally exaggerate in a playful silly voice for our children to play with us.
- I’m totally safe here. We stand at the age of the swimming pool or in the sea or near the couch and we say how good it feels to be so safe and to know that no-one would ever push us over or push us in. What we are really doing of course is inviting them to push us and then we act all shocked and surprised that they have. This game can be extended well by saying “OK I can forgive you for doing it once, but promise me you will never do that again ok?” and then we “let” them do it again.
- Don’t’ gang up on me. This is a great game if siblings are fighting or if our children are having difficult time connecting with their peers. We tell them how unfair it would be if they ganged up on us and then playfully invite them to do just that – chasing us, bouncing us too high on the trampoline etc.
- You wouldn’t ever cheat would you? This game we play whilst playing another game, especially if our children are cheating or are really desperately wanting to win a game. We invite them to cheat whilst pretending not to see them doing it and then be all confused that they are winning again when we were sure that we would win.
Our children may then have feelings:
Playing these games with our children can also bring up some tears and upset for them. Sometimes they might be upset when the game is over, sometimes we just don’t judge it quite right and slightly overwhelm the children. Sometimes our children get hurt by mistake and sometimes, just moving in with the intention to play is enough to support our children to access some painful feelings that have needed to be released. Whatever the reason, all we need to do at this time is lovingly listen while they offload. If they are insisting on playing more, we can set a loving limit, where, as Marion Rose (level 2 Aware Parenting Instructor) says, we say No to the behaviour and a yes to the feelings underneath – “I know you really wanted to keep playing but it’s time to stop now”. And then again, we just listen.
Sometimes we have feelings too:
Sometimes when we play like this with our children, especially if they then get upset, we may have some feelings coming up too. Maybe we feel resentful that in spite of giving them so much attention and love they still aren’t happy. We feel that it’s really unfair that we weren’t played with like this when we were children. We may just feel exhausted and overwhelmed and unable to give any more.
A crucial element of Aware Parenting is getting support for ourselves. If we can take these feelings to our listening partner, or a journal or have a session with an Aware Parenting instructor, where we get to express these frustrations and resentments and angry feelings to an empathic ear, then it becomes so much easier to be in a place where we can play and support our children. And often, playing this way with our children and laughing together and pretending to be weak and clumsy and silly are the perfect antidote to the seriousness and responsibility of parenthood, or from our own feelings from childhood of having to get things "right" and not making mistakes.
Resources: If you need more information about Attachment play and power-reversal games, I highly recommend the books - Attachment Play by Aletha Solter and Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. I also recommend Patty Wipfler’s work on the Hand in Hand Parenting website and Marion Rose’s website which is full of articles, free courses and paid courses on play.