Although playing with your kids is very important for their intellectual and emotional development, there are 3 situations when you should absolutely stop playing with your child.  What?!

1. When you find yourself talking in a frustrated tone, arguing or ‘battling’ with your child.  

If you start to argue or get frustrated with your child during Dedicated Playtime, see if you can start over, or force yourself to step back!  Imagine this scenario during a board game between parent and child:

Parent:  “The rule is to put down one card at time” (Child placed many cards down.)

Child:  “I don’t like that rule. I made a new rule.  I can put down as many cards as I want.”

Parent:  “But the rule says that you can only put down one card.  We need to play by the rules.”

Child:  “No! That rule isn’t fair!” (Whining or raised voice.)

Parent: “Life isn’t fair sometimes but this rule is actually very fair and I won’t play with you unless you play by the rules!” (Raised or indignant voice.)

Child: (Throws cards.)

There is nothing wrong with a little disagreement or frustration during play.  Sometimes, play stirs up negative emotions in either the parent, child or both parties.  It’s when the parent or child start to fly off the handle that the ‘pause’ button needs to be pressed.   If someone starts to raise or change their voice, it is often the first sign of emotional dysregulation. It’s the first sign to the parent that they need step back from the play, the rules, and the parent or child’s agenda.  Instead all energy should shift to helping all parties calm down and re-regulate. Younger kids often need their parent’s help with this. Every child and parent is different in how quickly they become angered, how likely the situation can become unsafe, and how quickly they can calm down.  Sometimes, a parent can easily help the child and themselves press the reset button; sometimes they can’t. The earlier you can catch the escalation, the easier it will be to deescalate the situation. If you can’t calm yourself down as a parent, it’s best to step away from the situation as long as you know the child will be safe. Say you have to go to the bathroom.  Get a glass of water. Take a few deep breaths in and slowly exhale.

 Here’s an example of a reset:

Parent: “I’m sorry I raised my voice.  It seems like we got frustrated there.”

Child: “I don’t want to play this anymore!”

Parent:  “Let’s play something else that we can both enjoy.  What do you want to play?”

Child: “Let’s play Chutes and Ladders.”

Parent: “I think it might be hard to play another board game right now.  What else would you like to play?” Or “By the way, it’s snack time. Would you like to take a break for snack?”

 Here is another way the play situation could have gone all together:

Parent: “Huh.  You put down a lot of cards.  I thought the rule was to put down one.”

Child:  “I don’t like that rule.  I made a new rule. I can put down as many cards as I want.”

Parent:  “What don’t you like about that rule?”

Child: “I just don’t like it!” (Starts to raise voice.)

Parent:  “It is really important to you to win this game isn’t it?  What if I give you these cards from my hand to help you win?  Would you like that?”

Child:  “Yes!”

Parent:  “It was a hard morning at the park for you.  You got left behind by your friends on your bike.  It feels good to be able to pull ahead and win once in a while doesn’t it?”

Child:  “I’m getting pretty fast on my bike!”

Parent:  “You are! And if you keep trying, you’re going to get faster and faster!”  

2.  When you are falling asleep.


Have you ever told yourself that it would be a bit more comfortable to lie down on the floor while playing with your child?  There you are, getting comfy and cozy on the floor during Dedicated Play, only to have your eyelids start to droop and your mind starts to haze over.  There is an expression in Colombia for this situation, “Ojos en pijamas!” “Eyes in pajamas.” If you start to lie down on the floor to play and are getting sleepy, you are expressing a wish to yourself about how present you are able to be.  Get up and get out of there. Perhaps you suddenly forgot to unload the dishwasher? Did you forget to call grandma back? This might be the perfect time to take a break and get the coffee brewing!


Maybe after that cup of coffee, you’ll be back in the game.  Sometimes just redirecting the activity that your child is doing from something static on the floor to doing something where you’re running around or going to the park, can make the difference between falling asleep.  Sometimes a break to set up a programmed activity that your child has wanted to do, like going to the zoo or a play date can help you wake up while helping you create some dedicated play.

3. When you can’t fake the interest in what your child is doing.    
You may feel depressed, anxious or have a problematic relationship in your life, but usually you can still smile and fake your enjoyment with your children.  If you can’t fake it, address your mess. If it’s serious and you can’t figure it out on your own or with the help of those that love you, then you may need to talk to a professional.  Call a therapist. Tell your doctor. Reach out and talk to someone that can help you straighten out your stuff.

About the author:  Stacie Degeneffe LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Emeryville, CA.