For the purpose of confidentiality names and some details have been changed.
Do you have a child who is anxious? Play therapy can help. Here is just one example of an anxious child who developed resilience through play therapy.
Lily was four years old when she started attending play therapy with me. She had witnessed domestic violence and suffered as a result of mental health problems in one of her parents. In response to these difficulties, she had become very withdrawn and fearful. The necessary measures to ensure her safety had to be put in place before play therapy could commence, but once she was out of danger she could begin the task of healing emotionally from her trauma.
When she came for the first play therapy session with me she stood, rigid, in the middle of the room. She was hyper-vigilant and reacted with fear to every noise that she heard outside the room. She did not speak much, and anything she said was muttered under her breath. Using my body language and tone of voice, I focused on being a calm and reassuring presence in the room, allowing her space and time to explore the many fascinating objects in the room. I acknowledged her fearful responses to noises, and let her know that I was with her, I knew how she felt and that she was safe.
She soon began to feel comfortable enough to play with the toys in the room.
Lily played out many themes over the next few months, such as stories about rescuing, overpowering fearful characters, ‘nurturing’ play, setting up scenarios in which she would meet obstacles and have to overcome them, and regulating her feelings with blowing activities. These activities were all chosen by her, and she moved through them at her own pace, often coming back to re-enact the same themes over several weeks. Sometimes I could see the metaphors in the stories she played out- I could see how they represented her life. Occasionally her play did not make sense to me, but I could see that it was profoundly important to her and that she was working through some deep issues. My job is not to interpret her play to her, but just to stay with her feelings, reflecting them back to her, to witness the stories she showed me, and to join her in her play when invited to.
Through reflecting feelings, mirroring her tone and body language, and creating an atmosphere of non-judgemental acceptance, a therapeutic relationship was established, which allowed Lily to play out her feelings and practice new ways of experiencing and responding to the world. It is that feeling of safe-holding and acceptance that makes play therapy different to the regular play of day-to-day life.
As well as working with Lily, I also met regularly with her carer. I helped her to understand Lily’s behaviour, and showed her how to help Lily to feel calm and secure.
Lily attended play therapy for 30 sessions over the space of a year, and when she was ready to finish attending she was a completely different child to when she started. She would come bounding up the stairs to my room and was loud and exuberant in the play therapy sessions. (was this really the same child who had been like a frightened little mouse in the early sessions?) She was able to talk directly about her feelings, and was able to express her anger and disappointments in ways which were appropriate and healthy. Lily’s life was still not perfect, due to a difficult relationship with one parent, but through play therapy she had learned to cope with these difficulties in ways which were healthy, and not become overwhelmed with too-big emotions. Her carer reported that she was much happier in herself and had become more sociable and outgoing.
To look at her now, no-one would suspect the difficult first few years that Lily had endured. She was lucky to have attended play therapy at a young age. It is never too late for therapy, but when the child is young their brain is able to adapt more easily. Play therapy has given her back her childhood.
If you have a child who is anxious, and would like to find out if play therapy could help your child, contact me for an appointment. The case discussed above was about a child who had suffered immense trauma in her early years. Play therapy can also be highly effective for anxiety where the cause for their fears and worries is not known. I can work in partnership with the parents to see how we can all best support the child.