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The magical world of 5 year olds

"The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery."

                                            Erik Erikson

My mother loves to tell everyone a story about when I was little. The story is told with some drama as she reveals to her listeners about the time when I was 5 years old when she was driving me home from school and had stopped at a red light. She turned around to face me and held my hand with a certain level of intensity and asked if we could be best friends. I looked at her bemused and quickly informed her that she was my mum and that I already had a best friend. Growing up, though, my mother was well intentioned – play and art were governed by adult rules and logic.  Fun had had to be measurable and educational. By the time I was 8 years old I was writing my own poetry, when I wasn’t writing poetry I was spending my free time writing stories. When I was 12 years old I spent my free time pursuing through old encyclopaedias and writing essays on historical figures or places, and, by 16 years I was reading  up on law and philosophy. Fun = educational and measurable?

As a child counselor I have worked with many parents. Many of whom lament about the relationship they have with their children. They disclose wanting a closer relationship with their children but describe their children being closed off, argumentative, aggressive and rude. I remain attentive to the words they use and to their body language as they speak. They throw up their hands in exasperation as they inform me that they simply do not know how to manage their child’s “problematic behavior.”

While my primary focus is working with children and adolescents, occasionally I bring parents into sessions so I can observe their interactions with their children. I invite children to choose a game or a tool in the room (painting, sand tray).  The child is then asked to invite their parent to the game.  Inevitably, as I watch the dynamics unfold, parents soon take charge of the game.  This is done within the first few minutes of the game. Instead of staying with the child’s fantasy and inner world, parents assert their own language and demands, oblivious to their children’s needs. This in turn  sets in place a series of negative interactions. The child, who was initially happy during the start of session, becomes withdrawn, submissive and at times argumentative and combative. 

The parent occasionally turns to me to give me an all-knowing look. I make a note of their interactions and stop the play. I turn to the parent and ask them at what point during the play they noticed a shift in dynamics? Had they noticed that they had taken over the child’s play? Had they noticed a shift in child’s emotions and psyche?  I then ask the child and parents to resume playing. This time I emphasize to the parent the importance of letting the child lead. After some time has passed, I stop the play again. I ask both the parent and child how they’ve felt. Both disclose having a positive experience.

Emotions are complex and abstract.  As adults we often struggle expressing our emotions. Yet, we expect children to be able to vocalize how they’re feeling. Children express their emotions, through play,  art, and, games. While many of us may overlook it as something fun and trivial, it is anything but. Children are hard at work; playing out their internal struggle and emotional difficulties. Play and art therapy enables  the child’s unconscious to come into light. When we take over children’s play we set up barriers and prevent them from working through their difficulties and internal struggles.. Instead we set in motion a set of maladaptive behaviors and interactions. We, unconsciously tell children that their needs don’t matter.

In order to understand a child and empathize with their needs we must first understand their developmental milestones. At five years old, children become their own person.  5 years old are learning to understand about other people’s feelings and needs. They can feel empathy for others.  

They become aware of moral reasoning and the concept of “fairness “and good or bad behavior. They become people pleasers eager to feel accepted and develop friendships.  They get better at sharing and taking turns.  They’re able to exercise more self-control. They enjoy playing games but may spontaneously change the rule of the game. 

While they are able to exercise more self-control, they are still learning to regulate their emotions, and are prone to meltdowns over small issues. Their behavior and emotions can be extreme and riddled with contradictions. These experiences can often be overwhelming and scary for children.

Social and Emotional

Parenting tip:

Model your children socially appropriate ways to manage and express their emotions


1)    Deep breathing with a twist!   Choose a quiet space to do this exercise, where you won’t risk being disturbed or distracted. Set aside a few minutes. Invite a child to imagine there is a pizza in the oven. Invite the child to visualize the pizza (the toppings, smells, taste). “ You have a pizza in the oven and it’s all done and ready to be eaten. You’re really hungry, you take it out. But, oh no! the pizza is still very hot! What should we do? I know! Let’s take 10 slow breathes (in through the nose and out through the mouth) and blow on it to cool it down? Has it cooled down yet? Great. Let’s eat it. No? may be need to cool it down some more!"

2)    Bubble breathing: Have children practice deep breathing by slowly blowing out bubbles.

3)     Create a calming glitter bottle (note: this can be messy). A glitter jar can be soothing for children. Invite the child to make the bottle. When this is accomplished (make sure the lid is screwed on tightly.) Allow the child to experiment and play with the bottle. When they are feeling angry or anxious – have them turn the bottle and watch all the glitter flow from one end of the bottle to another

You will need:

•    A plastic bottle

•    A jug of warm water

•    60ml glitter glue

•    3 drops of gel food coloring

•    60g-80g glitter



a) Add warm water to your jar or bottle until it reaches around a third of the way up.

b) Add the glitter glue and stir until it combined with the water.

c) Add around 3 drops of food color and stir. You can add more or less depending on your preferred shade, but remember not to add too much or the mixture will become very dark and it will become hard to see the glitter.

d) Pour in the glitter! Again, you can use more or less than suggested, or go for a mix of chunky and fine glitter to give more texture to your jar. Stir well until combined with the existing mixture.

e) Top up your jar with the rest of the warm water, until it is almost full. Leave a little gap at the top of the jar to allow the mixture to move.


4)    Children work out their emotions through play. Instead of asking direct questions about children’s emotions, which can be daunting, try engaging in your child’s play. This can be done by adding another character into the game. As you play, it is critical that you wait for child’s permission and feedback.  If a child is working through anger or trying to solve a problem but remains struck – reflect back “oh that seems very difficult (exaggerate the emotion), is there any one here that can help, protect or support this character?” Allow time for the child to process and think of solutions.  It is imperative that the play is child led.



Parenting tip

Children learn by modeling! Children frequently misbehave because they feel disempowered and experience a lack of control

1)    Have 3 non-negotiable rules. Language must be specific and positive. Children and adults do not respond well when they hear the words “ no” or “don’t” or “why”?

2)     Allow children to come with 2-3 rules for you. Make sure they are accountable for making sure you follow through

3)    Collaborate with your child and come up with age appropriate consequences when a rule is broken

4)    Allow them to redeem themselves

5)     Focus on the behavior you want changed and not the child’s personality

6)    Give immediate and specific praise when a child displays a positive behavior

7)    Limit electronics!!!  I-pads, phones and TV can compel a child who already has difficulty managing their emotions and stress to become increasingly more angry, anxious and inattentive.

Parents, please stop being hard on yourselves. Take a deep breathe in and remember you're doing a great job!



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