You would think my ‘professional role’ as a Child & Family Therapist would really come in handy in a busy house with two children, one dog, a husband and countless extracurricular activities! Truthfully, I am just a busy mom like all of you. ]
My work is rooted in play, and grounded in the belief that I need to trust the process as I work with children. Children come into my office with the freedom to explore, play, imagine, build and pretend. They can choose to talk or remain quiet, giggle or cry, yell or whisper. My office becomes their space.
In play based therapy their choices are not judged or analyzed. It is my goal to sit beside them, to curiously observe their actions and acknowledge their choices. My role is to reflect back to their busy hearts and minds ‘how’ they are playing or ‘what’ they are playing so that they can help me understand where their ideas, characters, voices, emotions and interactions are coming from.
“Experiential play therapy allows children a safe and empowering way to present their unique perspective of their experiences.” Schwartzenberger, K., 2004
As a play based Child & Family Therapist, I fluctuate between non-directive and directive sessions with the children in my office. The first few sessions are spent building rapport and explaining my role as a new ‘helper’ in their family. I often joke that I am an ‘expert’ on feelings and I love talking about feelings and learning about new feelings when I meet a new friend. This inevitably leads to a beautiful, unfiltered and instinctively age appropriate discussion about a child’s feelings without ever having to ask the dreaded counseling question, “how does that make you feel?”
Child led conversations tend to go more like, “I know some feelings, like when I get angry if I don’t get my turn or my sister hits me.” This blows the door open to follow up ‘curiosity questions’ or statements from me;
“You have a sister?” or “It’s hard taking turns!” or “Angry can be a pretty big feeling sometimes. What does your body do when you have a big angry feeling?”
There’s no judgement, simple curiosity. Children will talk, and talk, and talk without realizing they are sitting with a ‘therapist’ as they dig through Lego, build with Play Dough or set up action figures. It is during these initial ‘curiosity questions’ that I get a sense of a child’s emotional awareness as well as their comfort level in conversation.
Once rapport has been established – kids remember an office where they were allowed to play; where they chose what they played with, without interruption and with nothing but warmth, kindness, interest and acceptance – I watch worries spill out, fears become exposed, experiences get described and can hardly wait for our next session.
“We know that children express themselves much better by playing than by talking. In play therapy then, children are allowed to express, using toys, all the things they have difficulty saying, or may even by unable to say at all, with words. This symbolic expression using toys is therapeutic in itself and can bring about positive changes within the child.” Eugster, K., 2007
A child’s emotions are often revealed in how they play, rather than what they choose to play with. If there’s a Lego creation that is continually destroyed and smashed, or an action figure battle that is rough and forceful, it’s a gift for me. “Those action figures are being really rough today!” A simple statement and acknowledgement of what’s ‘happening’ for that child. “You keep building a structure and then breaking it.”
This is when the heart warming work begins. “Jimmy pushed me down today at school.” “Sarah kept breaking all my sand castles.” “Mommy broke a plate and then cut her hand and screamed really loud.” Imagine the ‘curiosity questions’ that could come next…
Children, especially those struggling through daily growing pains with peers and typical sibling or family stressors pour out their worries, frustration and feelings without filtering their thoughts first. When a child has experienced an early trauma, they may take a little longer to reveal what’s under their play. Trauma creates protective barriers in children to safeguard them from early feelings of fear, loss or pain. Early trauma can bury those ‘everyday’ challenges which can then grow into more complicated feelings for children like anxiety or depression.
“Childhood trauma occurs when an actual or perceived threat of danger overwhelms a child’s ability to self regulate emotional reactions and coping abilities.” Schwartzenberger, K., 2007
The beauty of play based therapy is the process. It’s unique to each child, to their experiences and to their emotions. It is my privilege to discover those experiences and emotions along the way, with a curious and accepting heart, as I work with children.
Eugster, K. (2007). Play Therapy: How it Helps Children Feel Better and Improve Behaviour. Parent-Child Connections (online newsletter) – http://www.kathyeugster.com/articles/article003
Schwartzenberger, K. (2004). Experiential Play Therapy http://www.playtherapyseminars.com/articles/details/10001
Schwartzenberger, K. (2007). Developmental Play Therapy in the Treatment of Childhood Trauma. http://www.playtherapyseminars.com/articles/details/10006