When children play, they are learning deep and wonderful things. They are expanding self-expression, self-knowledge and self-efficacy. They are developing empathy and learning how to problem solve and effectively relate to others. As a child-centered play therapist, I believe that play is the language of childhood and that children can “tell” us what’s going on in their life through their play even when they don’t have the words to express their feelings or their narrative.
Often children are referred to therapy due to misbehavior at school, challenges with their peer relationships, or difficulty managing their emotional experiences. They have reached the limit of their “problem-solving tool box.” Play therapy offers them a place to practice new skills in a non-threatening environment. Research supports the effectiveness of play therapy with problems related to life stressors such as divorce, death, relocation, trauma, domestic violence or abuse (Reddy, Files-Hall & Schaefer, 2005). Play therapy helps children change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve concerns (Kaugars & Russ, 2001).
In a play session, the child leads the course of action and the therapist follows with reflective responses. Because play is abstract rather than concrete, it allows children to psychologically distance themselves from their problems and in the process move towards more effective solutions.
A typical play therapy session is 45 minutes long, and family members are invited to be part of the play time approximately once a month in order to learn the skills to continue play sessions at home.
Another important part of my work with children is teaching resiliency skills and practicing mindfulness. Growing up is never a pristine process, and children inevitably face traumatic experiences (both on a large and smaller scale). Often children are told to “be strong” or to “not worry about it” or that they are “over-reacting” and need to “settle down.” However, instead of trying to stop their feelings, I teach children how to observe and track their automatic body responses to situations.
Our bodies are a wealth of information, and I provide children with the opportunity to listen and respect their body responses through mindful games and exercises. By non-judgmentally observing their body’s reactions, they are creating a moment of pause between stimulus and response. And when that pause exists, there is a moment of choice, and the range of possible responses to a situation becomes larger.
One of the primary models of therapy I use with both children and adults is the Trauma Resiliency Model. As a biologically-based model, TRM removes the sense of pathology that often surrounds overly anxious or aggressive reactions to unpleasant situations. Children are taught that they have an elegantly designed nervous system that gets them ready for “fight or flight” when they feel threatened. They learn to detect sensations of distress: for example, when their heart is beating faster, or their muscles are getting tight or their palms are sweaty. And they learn to notice sensations of well-being, like when they feel a smile on their face, a warmth in their chest and more slow and steady breathing. When children can differentiate between bodily sensations of distress and sensations of well-being (a skill known as tracking), they are better able to use other skills to gently shift their nervous system back into balance. Skills such as resourcing, grounding and gesturing help return activated nervous systems to a more resilient space which we call our “Resilient Zone.”
My goal as a child therapist is to help kids grow into adults who can tenderly and respectfully hold all of their experiences so that they can live their life to the fullest. The good and the bad. The highs and the lows. The wondrous and the catastrophic. Fully. Freely. And fabulously.