Unraveling Tension

Unraveling Tension


What do you do when something just has to get done, and you and your child get all knotted up over it?

Dr. Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting and co-author of The Art of Roughhousing, suggests this, reprinted from his newsletter with permission. His analogy of an actual "knot" helps you unravel the tension.

The Knot of Tension


A Knot of Tension is a set of distressing feelings and behaviors linked to a particular situation.


Children often develop knots of tension around emotionally charged experiences, such as: separations, bedtime, rules, meals, toilet training, giving up a pacifier, school, chores, losing at games, musical practice, doctors and medicine, friends, siblings, punishments, and transitions.


Surprise!  Most of these are areas where parents tend to have some anxiety or pressured feelings, and these are also areas where children tend to feel helpless and not in control. In fact, it usually takes at least two people to “pull on the knot” and make it tense.


These things tend to tighten the knot of tension:

  • Punishment                                    
  • Time-outs or other separations
  • Labeling a child as “bad”                
  • Trying to “teach them a lesson”
  • Withdrawing love for misbehavior   
  • Forced compliance
  • Scolding, yelling and threats                            
  • Power struggles

These things tend to loosen the knot of tension:                                  

  • Play*  
  • Laughter         
  • Surprising and unexpected responses           
  • Empathy for child’s feeling     
  • Increase closeness                                          
  • Avoid power struggles           
  • Unconditional love                          
  • Releasing feelings (crying, shaking)
  • Looking at our own behavior, which might be contributing to the tension

*Two types of play loosen the knot of tension best:


1. One-on-one special time between a parent and child. The child is in charge of choosing what to do and the parent is extra enthusiastic.


2. Playtimes where the parent gently introduces themes that are related to the knot of tension (for example, with tension about separation, you would playfully introduce lots of goodbyes and reunions). The benefits of knot-loosening play come from letting go of control over your child, and instead focusing on reconnecting with your child, and reducing tension—your child’s and your own.

I've used puppets to introduce themes of tension with amazing results. For example, one day when my niece came home from Kindergarten, she told my sister and I that she hated a little girl in her class. It turns out that the little girl kept running up and hugging her even after she said stop.  My sister talked to the teacher who tried to keep an eye out, but it kept happening. So I made some quick sock puppets with markers and yarn, then invited my niece to play out the hugging scene with me using the puppets.

I put her in the lead. She decided I should play the little girl, and she would play herself. She directed me to run up to her and hug her. When my puppet hugged hers, she said, "Go away!" My puppet backed away, and since I wasn't sure how the puppet should react I whispered, "What should I say?" She said, "You cry!" That surprised me because in real life, my niece would have tried not to hurt the little girl's feelings. But it turned out to be exactly what my niece needed, which is always the case when you put children in the lead.

When I followed her lead and boo-hooed exaggeratedly, she laughed and said, "Lets do that again!" She repeated this play over and over and over, giggling with delight each time. It turned out to be so freeing for her to be able to communicate her true feelings without really hurting anybody, that when she saw the little girl at the park later that week, she did a very unexpected thing. My niece turned to my sister and said excitedly, "Mom, look! There's my friend," and ran up to the little girl and hugged her!

Well, unexpected until you remember our first premise:

Everything children do and say is a communication; and they must continue to communicate until they are heard.


  1. Thanks for sharing this with your readers!–Larry Cohen

    • David Weiner |

      Great stuff! In modified form, this works with adolescents as well.

      David Weiner
      Prof. of Sociology
      Austin Community College

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *