When I first received the referral for a 2.5yr old struggling to transition to daycare – I had two thoughts; of course she’s struggling to transition to daycare, and TWO and a half – what could I do?
I had the room set up to be as inviting as possible; toys were out, stuffies were visible and I was waiting at the door. After hearing about her animated refusal to go to daycare (screaming, crying, gagging, food refusal and throwing up) I was ready for her to be weary of coming into our space.
Hand-in-hand with dad, she extend a great big smile and agreed to come right in when I invited her.
I was thrilled, and surprised.
At 2.5yrs I advised parents that they would remain present for the entire hour, that we would talk and she would play. We would strategize and I would focus on reassurance, empathy and normalizing the difficulty of this very first (of many) transitions.
The quiet play beside us was with our two wooden houses, people and animals. Each little doll had a mom and a place to sleep, each little animal had a mommy and a home. Occasionally she would come over to show us an animal and its mommy, but for the first half an hour she played very quietly right beside my chair.
Mom and Dad shared their struggles with watching their daughter ‘change’ from a happy little girl to a stressed (crying, not eating, switching from one thing to another, scattered and distracted) little girl.
I could hear & see a theme emerging in her quiet play. As if on cue, she came over to us and leaned into dad showing him a mommy camel and baby camel. (We all exchanged a grin that the mommy camel was actually a moose – love it!)
“The mommy is flying away. She’s going to work and never coming back.” I quickly reacted and responded, “Mommies not coming home from work?” She adamantly replied, “mommy’s not coming back, she’s flying and flying and not coming back.” I tried again, “Mommy will come home from work!” She insisted, “mommy’s flying and flying and flying.”
I whispered to dad to enquire about his work. He works out of town, with an airport. Really??
We were interrupted by a little voice, “mommy’s flying away to her far house and doesn’t miss her baby.” I jumped in, “mommy’s don’t miss their babies when they go to work, AND mommy doesn’t come home?” (I was simply reflecting and re-stating the tiny voice in my office. There was not interpretation or analysis because this is her 2.5yr old perception and experience, and that’s why they’re here!) This back and forth went on a few more times – until the parents filled me in.
Dad works out of town, leaves for days at a time, and stays at ‘the far away house.’ Mom was returning to work, after an extended mat-leave and this was the first time our little 2.5yr old friend was experiencing mommy going to work. ‘Going to work’ DID mean leaving and never coming back, and it DID mean staying away sleeping at the far away house.
I was overwhelmed – along with 2 misty eyed parents – and couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed.
(I literally said, “I wish I had video-taped that – that was amazing.”) Mystery solved, worries and fears revealed and parents reassured.
The power of play therapy was beautifully revealed and we just had to be open to letting our 2.5yr old ‘client’ play out her worries. She didn’t know that was what she was doing, she was ‘just playing!’
In play-based sessions (using art supplies, Lego, puppets, play-dough, doll houses, board games, building blocks etc., etc.) it’s the children who take the lead. They set the pace, they choose the medium and I simply listen, reflect and wonder out loud alongside them.
Creating a safe and warm space for children to play frees children to do their work; play. When children play, they are working through their ‘stuff’ – their worries, their struggles, their happiness and their hopes.
This story is true – I promise – and this story is one of my most heartwarming moments in clinical practice thus far. I knew I believed in play based therapy sessions, and every once in awhile it’s nice to be reminded that it really works!!