Feature

How to use laughter to get your kid to do what you want

I call it Giggle Parenting

For most parents, this scene is probably familiar: Your toddler refuses to get dressed. You've tried everything you can think of: asking nicely, persuasion, bribes, threats. Nothing works.

You're running out of ideas.

But then, you change strategies. You put her pants on your head, or try to put her socks on your hands. Suddenly, she's in a fit of giggles. Two minutes later, she's fully dressed. No tears, no tantrums.

What just happened?

Laughter is one of the most important — and underutilized — tools in the parenting toolbox. In fact, I would argue it is the best way to dissolve power struggles and turn a toddler's stubborn refusals into happy cooperation.

I call this approach Giggle Parenting.

How exactly does this work? Well, let's get a bit scientific. Children are born wired for human connection. Their limbic system — which is thought to be the emotional part of the brain — is like radar, constantly scanning the environment for an adult with which to connect. When children do feel connected, they can think clearly, they can listen, they can follow simple requests, like brushing their teeth before bed, or picking up their toys.

Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, and author of The Whole-Brain Child, describes this as an "integrated" brain state. "That's what integration does. It coordinates and balances the separate regions of the brain that it links together, Siegel says. "It's easy to see when our kids aren't integrated — they become overwhelmed by their emotions, confused, and chaotic. They can’t respond calmly and capably to the situation at hand. Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting — and life — are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration."

Conversely, when a child is overwhelmed with emotion, more brain energy gets concentrated in the limbic system, which means that it's hard for the thinking part of the brain — the pre-frontal cortex — to function well. A toddler's irrational outbursts, like throwing a cup of water on the floor, or refusing to have a diaper changed, happen as a result of this. He feels emotional and literally can't think straight or process language.

In moments like these, trying to have a "talk" with your child is probably the least effective approach. And sticker charts, rewards, and consequences don't offer a child what he or she really needs, which is that connection.

But laughter works. It works because it cuts right through to your child's emotional brain. As the comedian Victor Borge once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." Laughter is nature's way of releasing stress and tension, and when a child giggles, they also get to reset their brain, lower their blood pressure, and elevate their mood. And when children feel better, they are no longer lost in their feelings and are more able to feel the warm attention of the adults around them.

Once children feel well-connected to us again, they are much more likely to cooperate. One study found that, even at the tender age of 14 months, babies were more likely to pick up an object dropped by a caregiver if they had been bounced to music with that caregiver beforehand, suggesting that all the little ways in which we invest in connection add up to a more cooperative kid.

So when your child acts up, and you find yourself losing patience or slipping into "lecture mode," remember the power of laughter.

Here are six common parenting scenarios that can be transformed with the Giggle Parenting method:

1. Teeth-brushing or hair-brushing. Get a plush toy to do the brushing, but instead they try to brush your teeth, your hair, your nose, your toes. Act playfully annoyed with the toy, and say something like, ''No, no, no, that's not right, you're meant to brush (insert child's name)'s hair, not mine!'

2. Toy clean-up time. Turn into the voice of the toys, and beg your child to take them back "home." Either he'll immediately cooperate with the fun approach, or run away giggling for a while first. After lots of playful "disobedience" your child will be much more likely to cooperate for real.

3. Sharing. Grab a toy that no-one's playing with and announce to the children, in a playful way, something like: ''I'm playing with this and I won't let anyone have it.'' This is an invitation for them to try and grab it off you! Sharing struggles will dissolve when children join forces to conspire against you. Let the children grab the toy, and run away with it, while you try and fail to grab it back.

4. Eating dinner. When your toddler refuses dinner, pick up a spoonful of yours and feign disgust. Exclaim "yuck!" and drop the spoon back on your plate. As your child laughs at your own "fears," they'll feel more relaxed about trying their own food.

5. Bath time. Grab some plush toys, and have them approach the bath, before you realize your mistake, and exclaim, ''Oh no! That's not (insert your kid's name), let me try again!''

6. Bedtime. Grab some pillows and have a pillow fight! Contrary to popular belief, it's important to rev children up before bed, rather than wind them down too gently. Research has found that laughter helps release the sleep hormone melatonin, so go with your child's natural inclination to be silly and giggly at bedtime, and they will sleep much better.

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