when kids don't respond to your request to stop playing

Q: An ongoing thing for us has been when the kids are involved in playing and it’s dinner time (or bedtime, or time to leave the house) and we say something to them and there is no response. We say it again and again, and it is as if they are deaf. If we lose it and get mad and shout at them, no one is happy (the kids start crying, we are stressed). If we go over to them and pick them up and remove them from their play, they are not happy either (understandably). How can we get them to pay attention to us in a way that doesn’t cause stress or tension?

A: Ah yes, the age old "time for dinner" dilemma.  Here's something you might try:

Give them a countdown.  Whenever you will be asking kids to stop a game or activity that they are engrossed in, give them time to wind it down.

Fifteen minutes before you need them to stop, go over to them (don't just call it out from the other room), touch them on the shoulder or back gently, and say, "It will be time to stop playing in 10 minutes.  I will come back in 5 minutes to see if you need any help wrapping things up."  Don't force eye contact, but if you can look them in the eye while saying this, that's even better.

Then go back in 5 minutes, and offer warm, playful connection and your help wrapping things up.

If they refuse your help, tell them warmly that you'll be back in 5 minutes to let them know playtime is over.

When you come back, if they are not yet finished, you still have five more minutes to mess around with, because you started this process early.  So you can decide how you want to handle it. Depending on your energy level and patience, you may choose different things from one time to the next.

You may just playfully scoop them up and transport them to the next activity.

You may just batten the hatches and turn off the game or activity and keep them company while they release their upset about it. 

You may make your hand into a puppet or speak for the toys they are playing with and whine a little bit (not in mocking, but in play):  "Oh, no, here she comes and I'm not ready to stop yet!  I hate stopping in the middle of my game!  I'm not even hungry and I don't care about dinner! Oh nooo, she's probably gonna scoop me up and make me eat green beans!  Nooo, I hate grean beans! Don't make me doooo it!" 

This will probably crack them up, and break their concentration.  It will also probably be more compelling than whatever game they are playing, and therefore allow their attention to shift more easily to the next thing.  

The idea is to make it funny and playful and light, acknowledge their desire for play, and maintain your position that it's dinner time without resorting to anger or yelling.

If you decide to scoop them up they may be unhappy, but that's okay.  There's no rule that says we have to make our kids happy all the time.
We do them a big favor when we warmly keep them company while they release their upset about being held to a limit.

It's amazing how quickly kids can release their upset feelings when they have our loving attention - no words are necessary, and no convincing that things are fine. Just our loving and caring ears are all we need to provide.

If transitions are often challenging, then some family brainstorming at a time when everyone feels connected and is thinking well could help.  The question to present for consideration is:  "What can we do when it's time to stop and you want to keep playing?"

Write down everyone's ideas, no matter how wacky.  In fact, to make it fun, you might make some wacky suggestions yourself, like:  "I know, let's just never eat dinner again!"  Or, "I know, we could hire a plane to buzz really low over the house every day at 5:15 and drop a parachuter who can remind you that it's dinnertime!"

When you've got a good-sized list created, with funny and practical ideas on it, go back through and sort out your options.  Some will get tossed out because they aren't practical (awww, there goes the parachuter -- too expensive and too many tall trees in the backyard) or don't work for everyone involved (and there goes the never-eat-dinner again option).  But something on that list is likely to be worth experimenting with.

Be sure to work out in advance how everyone will know if this new plan is working or not.  And then check in after trying it for a few days to see if it needs any adjustments, or if you need to try something else because it's just not working.

Also be aware that even when everyone agrees to a great new plan, there will be some times that the kids don't comply with it.  So it can be a good idea to also discuss what will happen if they don't stop, so they know what to expect.  Make Plan B funny if you can.  "Ok, and if you still don't stop, what should we do then?  Gosh I sure hope I don't accidentally trip on that cord and yank it out from the wall!"  This is not meant to be punitive or sarcastic, but to lighten the whole thing up and make room for
some spontaneous and random behavior on your part.

For more ideas like this, you might like to check out the book Playful Parenting by Larry Cohen.  I think it's a really wonderful resource. 

Let us know how it goes!

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com

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