My seven year old daughter came home from school with a tear-streaked face. Her story of hurtful words shared between friends at school was fragmented, and hard to make sense of from my adult perspective. We talked, I held her, and discussed next steps. In the middle of the conversation, she shut down, clearly not wanting or able to talk any more. Outside, she ran to the frisbee swing where she spent hours swinging and talking, fully engaged in her own creative play. When she came back inside, her attitude and mindset were completely different than that of the school girl who had walked through the door just hours earlier. In her play, she had worked out her struggle with ideas of steps to take. The anxiety of the day was no longer overwhelming her.
If you are a parent or teacher, you have also experienced this. During play children work out so much: who they are, creativity in problem-solving, unmet expectations of self, unmet expectations of others, loss, disappointment and much more. In the world of play, they use toys, activity, and story to show their vulnerability, and find comfort in finding resolution for problems they face.
Sometimes, children encounter life in a way that causes distress beyond what they can work out on their own. Children may need additional help sorting through and making sense of their experiences.
Foundational to Play Therapy are two beliefs:
Children are innately created to move toward health.
Although he or she often cannot articulate it, a child knows what he or she needs.
So what happens in Play Therapy? The child is not just playing a board game, sword fighting, arranging a doll house, or experiencing some other medium of play. The therapeutic relationship, experience of play, and neurobiology are all at work in these 4 processes in Play Therapy.
- Children set up the experience of their world. The therapist and child build trust and rapport as the child allows the therapist to enter his or her world of play. This is a crucial way for a child to experience being seen and heard with her hopes, fears, anxieties and grief.
- Children head in two directions in their play: toward the experience of their struggle/trauma and toward healing. The therapist literally feels the child’s experience and can help identify and name those feelings and underlying emotions. The therapist also models emotion regulation and self-soothing tools without breaking the metaphor of play.
- Children develop new and creative solutions to the problems they face. Like adults, children feel stuck and anxious when they cannot figure out solutions to the struggles they face. The difficulty is that children are often seeking concrete solutions to abstract problems (of which they have little control). The child and therapist brainstorm and problem solve with abstract themes in concrete play. Over time, this process shrinks the feeling of anxiety, and empowers the child with tools for facing his or her struggles.
- New healthy pathways are formed in the brain. Play therapy helps untangle messy pathways in the brain that over time have contributed to a child’s experience of distress. It also can build and reinforce new healthy connections in the brain empowering growth in resilience as well as a stronger sense of self.
If you think Play Therapy might be a good fit for your child, we can help. Email or call us today.
Lisa Cuss is an intern with Grace Counseling and a student at Denver Seminary. She is a mother to three, and uses her experience teaching elementary school to effectively treat children at Grace Counseling.