The Power of Play: How Fun Helps Diffuse Tantrums

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
July 27, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Are you wondering how to get out the door in the morning without a fight? Are you stuck in a cycle of threats, punishments, yelling or bribery? You’re not alone!

I recently had a conversation with a couple struggling to get their toddler to listen to their instructions. They described her as “disobedient,” “stubborn,” and “manipulative.” 

When they instructed her to clean up her toys, she would throw her toys across the room. 

Whenever they tried to get her into her car seat, she would hit, kick, and scream.

When it was time for a bath, she would run away and hide.

Everything felt like a fight. The parents were exhausted and frustrated. With a new baby on the way, something needed to change. 

Does this story sound familiar? 

It can feel really difficult to stay calm and connect with your toddler when there’s constant pushback and protesting. 

What if I told you there was a magical tool for diffusing tension and responding to tantrums?

This blog unpacks one of the most effective tools for responding to toddler tantrums and redirecting their attention. This magical tool is (drum roll please)…….. playfulness!

4 Reasons Why You Should Respond to Tantrums With Play 

Reason #1: Play Is a Toddler’s Language 

When a child fears that they’re not seen or heard, or their needs will go unmet, they feel threatened. To a little one, feeling like their parents don’t see them appears like a direct threat to their security. But, toddlers and preschoolers don’t have the language to communicate this. So instead, to get their message across, they scream, kick, cry, run away, or fall to the floor. 

In other words, they tantrum.

For example, if a toddler is hungry and needs food NOW, but doesn’t have the words to say, “Mom, I really need something to eat,” they might start to scream. As a caregiver, this is extremely frustrating because we don’t always know what the screaming is trying to communicate.  

If a parent responds to a screaming toddler with punishment, it doesn’t actually meet their needs or help solve the cause of the problem. What they truly need (aside from food) are the words to communicate their needs; they need to know how to tell you they’re hungry. 

Playfulness is a language we can learn to better communicate with toddlers and preschoolers – it’s the gateway into their world! 

Here’s an example of what playful parenting might look like: 

You have a toddler who throws a fit after preschool every day, and you want to understand why (instead of falling into a cycle of punishment). 

So, when your child is calm, you grab their stuffed animals and use the toys to role-play the situation, inviting your toddler to watch.

You might say something like, “Mr. Giraffe is upset. He screams at his mom when he gets home from school. I wonder what Mr. Giraffe needs?” 

You can turn to your toddler and invite them to answer the question asking, “What do you think?”

They might say something like, “Mr. Giraffe needs a snack!” or, “I bet he wants snuggles from his mom!” 

For other kids, it might take some more prompting, but the idea is to use play to communicate with each other.

Learning a new language has its growing pains, so it might feel awkward to be playful at first. But, with time and practice, you’ll feel more confident using play to communicate with your little one and notice the powerful effect it has on behaviour! 

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A happy family of four enjoying time together at an amusement park. The photo captures a close-up of a smiling woman on the left and a beaming man on the right, both facing each other. They are looking lovingly at their two young sons, who are nestled between them. The older boy is grinning broadly and the younger one has a cheeky smile. The background is softly focused, with lights from carnival rides subtly illuminating the scene.

Reason #2: Playfulness Can Shift a Toddler’s Attention

Playfulness has the power to shift attention to offer a distraction from a trigger or relieve tension in stressful situations.

Here are some examples of how you can use playfulness to shift your toddler’s attention from their emotional outburst:

Example 1: Your toddler has a tantrum when you tell them to get into bed, so you use playfulness to shift their attention.

“I wonder if it would be faster to get into bed hopping like a bunny or waddling like a penguin? What do you think?”

Example 2: Your toddler is having a tantrum in a store because they can’t have a toy. 

*Make a silly noise. “Did you hear that? Can you help me find out where that noise is coming from?”

Example 3: Your toddler is refusing to get into their car seat or stroller.

“Alright, space cadet. We need to get back into the rocket ship for take off. Can you help me countdown to blast off!”

Example 4: Your preschooler refuses to get dressed.

“Can Mrs. Meow Meow help you get dressed?” (Pretend to be a cat while you help your preschooler get dressed.)

Reason #3: Play Can Help Children Make Sense of Their World

Children come into this world without any way of knowing right from wrong or cause and effect. This is all learned through experience and observation. Play is the method children use to gain new insight and learn new skills. 

Instead of having a tantrum, they can communicate what they need or express their fears through role-play, or release their emotions using a creative outlet like drawing. There are so many ways that play can teach your child about their world.

My daughters often use their stuffed animals to play through something that happened at preschool or kindergarten. They’ll set up and name all of their stuffed animals and act out events that happened at school throughout the week. It’s amazing to learn about events that happened to them throughout their week and see how it affected them.

Reason #4: Play Is Essential for Child Development 

Play is incredibly important for a child’s cognitive and physical development because it stimulates brain growth and provides exercise. Repeated exposure to languages, concepts, and ideas in play can improve a child’s memory, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills. Play has an important role in equipping kids to solve problems, communicate their needs, and think critically. 

First, play is important for physical and emotional development. There are various types of play that encourage physical movement or self-expression, such as dancing. Play can offer a release of pent-up frustration, and expand on problem-solving skills. Giving children this outlet and building these skills will help them avoid tantrums.

Secondly, play can teach kids to control their impulses. For example, games like Red Light, Green Light, Mother May I, and Freeze Tag allow children to practise self-control and follow instructions. In the long term, games like this will help your child control other impulses that often come up with tantrums (ex., hitting, screaming, kicking, and throwing).

The more exposure kids have to new ways of communicating, problem-solving, and critical thinking, the less likely they’ll burst into emotions because they’ll be equipped to get their news met.

Using Humour to Diffuse Tension

Laughter releases feel-good hormones in the body. This explains why humour has the power to mitigate a tense situation and shift the mood.

Humour offers a healthy outlet for caregivers and kids. Humour, silliness, and laughter can provide children and adults with a safe and healthy outlet for pent-up frustration while strengthening the parent-child relationship. Shared laughter is so powerful because it brings two people close and bridges disconnect. When a toddler and caregiver are in a war of wills, making a joke to lighten the mood, using a silly voice, or pretending to be an animal, can soften the defences. 

For my preschooler, pretending to be a cat, Mrs. Meow Meow, is often the only way I can get her to cooperate with me when we are getting ready in the morning. She won’t let me get her dressed, but as soon as I turn into a cat, she practically leaps into her clothing. 

Keep in mind, it’s essential to use humour with sensitivity and age-appropriateness. The intention should always be to lighten the mood and provide comfort, rather than dismiss or invalidate the child’s emotions. 

3 Examples of Using Humour to Avoid Tantrums

Example 1: Your child is struggling to take turns with their siblings.

  • Try this: The Toy Referee 
  • How this works: You pretend to blow a whistle that makes silly noises and act as the referee of the toy room. 
  • Why this works: This works to lighten the mood, diffuse the tension between siblings, and make turn-taking fun. 

Example 2: Your child refuses to sit on the potty.

  • Try this: The Potty Dancer
  • How this works:  Create a silly “potty dance” that you do while your child sits on the potty.
  • Why this works: This helps make the potty more exciting and enjoyable.

Example 3: Your toddler has a tantrum when you brush their teeth.

  • Try this: The Freeze Brush
  • How this works: You pretend that their toothbrush has magical powers. Every time they brush their teeth, you start to wiggle, dance, or move like a robot, and when they stop brushing their teeth, you freeze.
  • Why this works: This makes a difficult moment silly and distracts your toddler while they’re doing a less desirable task.

A Long-Term Solution

Over the years,  I’ve heard so many parents express their concerns about playful approaches to tantrums.

“We’re not playful enough for that…”

“Being playful is too much work! We’re tired!”

“We don’t have the time for that.”

Here’s the thing: It’s going to take time and energy no matter what you do. 

In the short term, you can spend time managing a meltdown OR spend the same amount of time playfully responding to tantrums. 

In the long term, the playful approach to tantrums is going to help preserve the parent-child relationship AND teach your toddler important skills!

For specific tools and strategies for tantrums, disciplining effectively, and reframing challenging behaviour, check out our online Parenting Little Kids course!

Key Takeaways

  • Toddlers often resort to tantrums because they lack the appropriate language to convey their needs. Communicating with them through play is useful and fun!
  • Initiating play during a tantrum can help to diffuse the situation more quickly.
  • Through role-play and creative activities, children can express fears, needs, and experiences that they may not share with you as easily.
  • Play is critical for both physical and cognitive development, aiding in your child’s memory, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills.
  • Using humour in tense situations can shift the mood and bridge any disconnect between the parent and child. Remember: it’s important to use humour when appropriate and not to invalidate a child’s feelings.
  • While play might require some effort to adopt, it can help prevent recurrences of tantrums in the long run.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.