Theraplay is a very specific play based intervention that helps parents and children build a secure attachment relationship, using playful tasks designed across four domains. These domains are Challenge, Structure, Nurture and Engagement, which are all crucial to a healthy parent-child relationship, and in turn, an incredibly important aspect of a child's development of self-worth. Today, using the concept of providing challenge as a basis, I'm going to talk about the importance of letting your child do things for themselves as one aspect of building self worth.
This one can be tricky! When you see your child struggling with doing something, our inner rescuer wants to jump in and do it for them, with best intentions to alleviate their distress and sometimes to avoid our own! However this can inadvertently send the message that you think the child can't do it, rather than your intended message of "I'm always here for you and I don't like seeing you have to struggle".
In my therapy sessions with children, I'll sit back and allow a child to figure things out for themselves. When it becomes obvious that the child is struggling with something, I offer the offer of help, rather than an outright "Do you need some help?" So I'll say "You're figuring how out those pieces fit together". After a pause, I'll add "It can be a little difficult sometimes, huh? If you would like some help figuring it out, let me know". And then you wait. This approach does several things - it offers an opportunity for co-regulation, with my words acknowledging their difficulty. This allows a window for feelings of frustration to be transformed into a decision to either keep trying or to ask for help, rather than throw the toy across the room or tear up the paper in disgust! It also conveys the message that I'm available to assist but that the decision ultimately sits with the child, and that it's going to be about the two of us working together to solve the problem. Help-seeking is an important part of emotional wellbeing even into adulthood, and this method is an easy, safe way to help your child develop this skill.
The first few times you do this, the child may automatically hand over the task to you, particularly if they are used to you stepping in (taking over!) or if they aren't naturally inclined to persist, however you should notice a shift in this response after using this technique more frequently. I encourage you to demonstrate some alternatives to what they were trying, linking it back to their attempt where possible, "You tried this way, and I reckon you were on the right track. What if we twist it this way? Ah yep, that looks like it might work. Here let's give it a go!" (said as you hand it back over for the child to complete).
You will notice that I've used inclusive language there, focusing on the 'we'. Again this conveys the message that this is a joint effort - that you don't necessarily know better. It's also an example of the language of curiosity, using "hmmm" and "I wonder" and "what if" is speaking directly to a child's natural inclination for exploration. It's important that your body language is congruent with your words here, and it can be helpful to hold in your mind what it might be like to figure this out when you were your child's age, rather than coming from a place of having it all figured out (yeah, right!). Sometimes it can be even useful to offer a 'solution' that might not work, so that the child might follow your role-modelling of curiosity and 'what-ifs' to offer another way. This would be something you could try after the child has build some experiences of success so that it doesn't become disheartening. As your child tries new things, use encouragement such as "oooh, you're wondering if that might work!? You like figuring things out!"
Lastly, it's important to take into account your child's age and stage, as well as other factors that might be influencing them in this particular moment. Providing your child with opportunities for challenging themselves is great but there are times when it will only end in tears. For example, are they attempting too much, trying to keep up with their big brother? Is it the end of the day and they are just too tired to be able to tolerate uncertainty and any level of frustration? If so, it might be time for nurture (cuddles and reassurance) and structure (providing an alternate activity or ending the activity) rather than challenge, even if the child has previously been able to do that thing without hassle before!
Also be mindful of your own state. If you're tired, or in a rush, it's unlikely that you are in the right headspace for curiosity and patience. If you've created space for this way of being, more often than not, then in times of stress both you and your child should be able to recognise that it might be one of those times when Mum or Dad need to do it. In times like this, you'll need to challenge yourself, draw on courage to admit that things haven't happened the way you'd like, and attune to their disappointment/frustration. "Oh, it's so frustrating for you when you want to put on your shoes yourself, and I need to take over! We're running late - sometimes things don't go to plan, do they? Here, let's get these on together".
As always, there's no need for perfection here. You'll fumble and stumble as you try these new ways, and that's okay. No doubt, this way will take more time, however the invaluable skills your child will learn (understanding their inherent worth isn't tied to getting it right, having compassion for themselves when things go wrong, flexibility, curiosity, help-seeking, just to name a few) are well worth it!
I'd love to hear how this resonates with you?