Understanding Play Therapy

 

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By: Sheri Fay, LMFT LPC
 

This past week there was another one of those awful stories in the news, the ones that make your eyes well with tears. This time it was a young boy who witnessed his mother's death. All he could say when questioned was "Mommy's crying, Mommy's in the rug", his verbal abilities and understanding of the world still quite limited. I don't know all of the details of the case, what if anything he truly did see, but it is pretty clear that this young person has certainly had a traumatic experience.

Our culture, like so many others, values children a great deal. As adults we know very well the danger out there, we watch the 6 o'clock news and read the headlines. We go through our day attempting to meet the demands of the world, mostly stressed, maybe anxious, probably tired. Children have yet to enter this grown-up world, they want to play, have snacks, and watch Dora the Explorer. Us adults usually do every thing we can to shield them from it because we know the innocence of childhood will not last forever. So it comes as no surprise that much of the water cooler conversations these past few days have been about this little boy. I have heard things like "he needs some therapy", "if he doesn't address this it's going to come back to haunt him years later" or "how will he ever get over this?"

As a child therapist who has worked with many children who have experienced trauma, I could confidently say that, thanks to play therapy, this too is manageable. Just like adults talk things out after going through something terrifying and traumatizing, children play through their feelings and reactions. This natural inclination of children to play out the things that are happening around them is their way of trying to make sense of their world. To them they are merely playing and because of this it feels safe and comfortable. Actually, over-talking about traumatizing events can cause more anxiety, putting children on the spot and making the event even bigger and scarier. It is through playing that children have a real chance to make sense of what is going on, and most importantly, resolve unconscious conflicts. Playing gives them a sense of detachment from which to explore and deal with their feelings.

During play therapy children use one of their best gifts, their imagination. A play therapists office is full of a variety of toys that children can choose at their will. The very choice of toys begins the play therapy experience. Children can act out different scenarios, try on several different solutions or outcomes, practice ways to resolve conflicts and cope with distressing material. They can put scary, hidden feelings and fears onto objects outside of themselves and watch and learn how these toys "handle them". Whatever is on the child's mind usually comes out naturally in their play. It is typical in the beginning of play therapy that the child's toys are scared, unsure, usually defeated by some type of monster. But as the sessions progress, these same toys end up winning battles, overcoming adversity, and have a confidence they did not have previously.

Part of a play therapist's training involves tracking play, watching for themes, and voicing toys in order to elicit a response from another toy. These techniques allow us to learn more about the meaning behind the play. If in a child's play a giant dinosaur is walking through a Lego town and a doll is hiding behind a tree, a play therapist may ask, "What is the doll feeling?" The child, without even realizing it, is giving you clues to what he or she is experiencing. In addition, the therapist can ask, "what can the doll do to be less afraid?" stimulating the child to think of other ways to respond to their fears. The therapist can also play with the child while still allowing them to drive the process. For example, if the therapist is the dinosaur she may whisper to the child, "what is this dinosaur saying to everyone?" allowing the child to guide both the fearful doll and the scary monster. Through the course of the play therapy experience, the child may build and rebuild this Lego city. The difference being that each time the characters will act a little differently. The doll may slowly come out from behind the tree, speak to the dinosaur and ask him to go away, or realize that he is not so scary after all. The dinosaur may choose another path or make friends with the doll. This resolution and learning is then integrated into the child's knowledge base.

The young boy in the news story mentioned above will obviously always remember this horrible tragedy and miss his mother terribly, but by engaging in play therapy he can process what has happened and learn the necessary coping skills to have a well-adjusted life.

If you feel your child may be suffering from a traumatic experience or causing you any concern you may want to consider a play therapist. Children can enter play therapy for a variety of reasons including depression, anxiety, behavior problems, school and peer concerns, social anxiety, and defiance among many others. If you are unsure if your child may have a mental health concern or you need help determining if therapy would be beneficial you can ask me a question on my website, http://www.askachildtherapist.com. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Philadelphia, Pa in private practice and have been working with children, families and individuals for over 10 years.

Sheri Fay, LMFT LPC

 



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