What we are really discussing here is the transition of affects from negative to positive—from distress (frustration), anger, fear, and shame, to interest, enjoyment, and surprise. This is what parents try to do all the time—listen, try to understand (empathy), and discuss the negative affects (distress, anger, fear, shame) of the child (and adult!)—and use the positive affects of interest, enjoyment, and surprise.

Behavioral change occurs much more readily when one uses positive affects rather than negative affects.

In clinical treatment (and parenting), changes occur in two major ways:

  1. Verbal interpretations—discussing feelings (positive and negative affects, conscious and unconscious), childhood antecedents, actions, goals, themes, transferences, and so on.
  2. The relationship with the therapist (and parent)—the interest of the therapist, internalizing the therapist’s capacities to be curious, to self-reflect and try to understand, and more…that is, to strengthen positive affects rather than negative affects.

In day-to-day situations, the spirit of playfulness can be used to distract an infant or older child from distress. For example, babies sometimes get fussy or distressed when their diapers are changed, or they are dressed. This can be difficult for parents who must perform those activities. They can’t remove the trigger of their baby’s distress. They have to go through with it. But if Mom or Dad can introduce playfulness into the situation, rather than get frustrated and impatient, then the baby can shift mood too. For example, it can work wonders if pulling the T-shirt over baby’s head becomes a time to play peek-a-boo, or if you offer baby the cardboard roller from a roll of paper towels to play with while you change the diaper. You might also put on a record and sing along, or talk about what’s in the room, or tell a story. Anything that provides interest and enjoyment will lighten the atmosphere.  (There is actually an article in the literature by a mom who loved to play Bob Dylan’s ballad “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” whenever she changed her baby’s diaper! Try it!).

Bedtime is another situation that goes a lot smoother if you use playfulness to ease signals of distress. “When Jay was a year and a half old he hated to go to bed,” remembers his mom, Sandi. “He was so afraid he was missing out on something going to in the other room. So we developed a game with his stuffed animals. I’d tuck them under the covers in his bend, and then I’d say, ‘Oh Jaaay. I think I hear something,’ and bark like a dog. Jay would look kind of perplexed. Then I’d ask him who that could be. ‘Do I hear Sammy and Jimmy?’ I’d say. Well, that would do it. He’d squeal and I’d bark some more. He’d try to bark too. We’d go in search of his animals, and when he found them after we looked all around the house, he would dive into the crib to snuggle with them. I think because we were throughout the house, and made it all so interesting, he was able to forget about what he might be missing out on and could focus on his bed and his animals.”

Babies are also easily distracted when they are bored. Their whole being is a sensory input machine—they love to receive stimulation from their surroundings and other people. That’s why they are so intrigued by an endless parade of everyday objects—a magazine, pots and pans, your hair, their toes, something shiny. But when they are in a situation where they are understimulated, they quickly become restless and then agitated. Being stuck in a stroller wheeling through narrow store aisles, where they can’t touch anything so see much, can produce wails of unhappiness. Take time to offer them some interesting and enjoyable stimulation—a toy, a conversation, a chance to touch what they see, a funny song—and they will calm down.

Kids Learn Playfulness By Your Example

Dad playing with daughter at grocery storeWhen you are frustrated, if you make an effort to react with interest and enjoyment, your child will learn a valuable lesson in using playfulness to handle frustration—and you’ll end up feeling better too. For example, finding what is amusing or entertaining in a traffic jam will give your child a good lesson in how and when to be playful. As frustration mounts you may say, “This is getting to be a real pain. But if we’re stuck here, let’s sing a song.” Your response offers a clear demonstration of how to cope with agitation.

This ability to use playfulness to transform distress is a powerful way to help your child develop tension regulation. For example, when you and your child are stuck in a waiting room at the doctor’s and frustration is growing, take the opportunity to turn the passing minutes into playtime, reading magazines, playing hide and seek, walking around the room, and looking at the pictures on the wall. By using these examples, or by using paper and pencil to draw pictures, you will help your child find new ways to cope with stress and boredom.

Kids Learn Playfulness by Your Responses to Their Signals

Children also develop playfulness when parents react appropriately to their child’s signals and then follow up with a moment of fun. For example, if there is a loud noise—a car alarm goes off right in your child’s ear as you are pushing the stroller down the street—your baby may express surprise and then fear. How he reacts depends on his innate sensitivity and a combination of circumstances: (1) whether or not you acted promptly to offer protection and comfort from the noise, (2) whether or not you took the time to put words to the situation, and help the child learn to express anxiety using language, and (3) if you found a way to transform the alarm into something amusing. You might imitate the sound of the horn, or make funny faces at the upsetting noise, or wave good-bye to the offending car as you walk quickly away. These kinds of extra gestures help the child overcome her initial surprise, gain some sense of mastery over the threatening situation, and find ways to transform the alarm into something amusing.

So next time your baby is surprised and scared by a dog, talk with him, offer reassurance and sympathy, and then distract the baby with something that is fun and lighthearted—a song about the dog, a quick jog down the street in your arms, a chance to look at himself in a window.

Surprise is not the only signal, however, that offers a chance to teach playfulness. Each and every signal presents parents with a chance to encourage playfulness, and to improve tension regulation.  Kids who don’t feel that parents respond attentively to their signals often increase the emotional ante, intensifying their signals, becoming more agitated and less playful. The capacity to use playfulness and humor can have lifelong benefits.


Greenspan SI (1992). Infancy and Early Childhood: The Practice of Clinical Assessment and Intervention with Emotional and Developmental Challenges. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Winnicott DW (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.

Yanof J (2019). Play in the analytic setting: The development and communication of meaning in child analysis. Int J Psychoanalysis 100: 1390-1404.