Every child and their caregiver are part of a unit.
That unit can look many different ways: we have the traditional nuclear family consisting of two parents and their children but there’s also single parent households, or a family consisting of ‘step’ siblings or parents. And today we are seeing more grandparents or relatives take on significant caring roles. No matter what it looks like it is still a family unit.
I work with caregivers to understand a child’s emotional development and explore potential reasons for certain behaviours (without diagnosing any conditions). We then look at the relationship between the caregiver and the child and try to understand if that has broken down. If it has, then we look at why and figure out how can we repair it without laying shame or blame.
Think about the last time you were really distressed. Did you have trouble explaining exactly what it was that you were experiencing? Did you feel ‘safe’ to say those words out loud?
I find it difficult sometimes, and I’m an adult in their 40s!
So imagine a child around the age of 5 years who’s brain is still developing and hasn’t formed the ability to put into words what they feel, think or experience. They literally don’t have the vocabulary to name it. That’s often why we see a lot of those big, scary and challenging behaviours like intense crying, hitting or biting, disruptive behaviour in class or lashing out at siblings, friends or parents.
Words are hard to find
In a nutshell, therapeutic play puts meaning to emotions, thoughts and experiences where words can’t. Play is the expression. Have you heard of music or art therapy? They are similar in that they allow a person to express emotion, thoughts, experiences in a safe way that isn’t relying on spoken words. Which can be hard to find in the event of trauma or anxiety.
Bessell van der Kolk, one of the most credible authorities on trauma and the brain says that when trauma or severe anxiety occur, our body goes into flight, fright or freeze mode. Freeze mode affects the amygdala in the brain which is our emotional regulation centre. People in this state are often filled with rage or are completely dysregulated. However, it also impacts the Brocha's Area of the brain, which controls our ability to form language. So we might know the words we want to say but our brain can't put them together and tell our mouths to verbalise it.
Does that sound familiar? It can happen in many circumstances, not just trauma - at a job interview, in conversation with someone we are attracted to and also within relationships that are considered traumatic.
That's where other forms of therapy like play, art, music or yoga are especially helpful. They give us another way to communicate that doesn't rely on words.
You can read more about Bessell van der Kolk and his research in this short summary of his book: The Body Keeps the Score.
Want to see know more about play therapy?
This wonderful video by Playful Pathways in the UK explains it beautifully.
So together with you, I engage in the therapeutic play process and when the time is right, usually within a few sessions, combined play with you and the child.
Therapeutic play can:
Give children a way to express their feelings and emotions or experiences. Through play they often unconciously act out situations or experiences and feelings.
Show caregivers how the child is feeling and how they have experienced an event or perceive the world around them.
Help child and carer reconnect and give each other the attachment or bonding experience that might have been disrupted or absent.
It’s never too late to try and reconnect.
Therapeutic play for kids 3 - 8 years
Therapeutic play offers children in this age group an opportunity to express emotions and thoughts through the universal language of play.
Toys and materials are age-appropriate for children aged 3 - 8 years and include: art, dolls, cars, doll house, tea set, teddy bears, bubbles and more.
Therapeutic play for children aged 9 - 12 years.
Just like younger children, kids of this age group (9 - 12 years) still use the universal language of play to express their feelings or process their experiences. The range of materials I use is age-appropriate for their interests and include art, musical instruments, card games and some dolls/teddy bears and other non-prescriptive toys.