Playing with your child therapeutically

For children, play is their life’s work, the most important thing they do. Sometimes, parents caught in the juggling act of childcare, school and perhaps also paid work will wish that making caves in a sandpit was their work too. And it can be. Using some basic play therapy skills with your children will bring more reward than a salary and help them cope better with whatever life is pushing their way.

Play therapy proper is, of course, conducted by trained counsellors with children from four to twelve or so. If you have a serious concern about your child’s emotional well-being, you should always ask for professional help. However, the basic skills are an excellent tool for all parents and, practiced regularly, will give your child invaluable emotional support.

I say ‘practice’ because this is different from normal play. An example will help. Suppose your child hauls a blanket across the floor and says: ‘Can we play with this?’. You might say: ‘Wow, shall we make a den and pretend to be wild animals?’, which would be adult-led play. Or: ‘Let’s see how many different things we can use the blanket for!’, which has an educational intent. Both are perfectly valid and your child will benefit from your involvement. But what’s happened is that you’ve moved your child away from the rug itself and the germ of her own idea – which would certainly have been something she needed to do, consciously or unconsciously, and something that was already percolating in her head. Perhaps a need to feel small again and wrap herself up tightly. Or to screen off a space in which to sit privately with you because too many visitors came recently. This idea is lost as she jumps at yours. So you could have said that it was fine to use the blanket and that you’d watch or help if she wanted you to. That way, you’d have found out how life felt for her, and she would have done what she needed to do emotionally.

So what I mean by play therapy ‘skills’ is responding to your child in a certain way that is intended to give them a mental space of their own in which to explore and replay their concerns, make sense of life and meet some of their own emotional needs. You simply follow the child’s lead. This will probably be connected quite strongly with what is happening for them at the moment.

There might be new people in their life, babies, car crashes, pets dying, changes of home circumstances, difficulties at school and so on. All this baggage needs sorting into some kind of mental framework if your child is to thrive. Later, if they’ve sorted things out ‘well enough’, they will adjust to new events without feeling destabilised by earlier ‘unsorted’ ones zooming around their heads. Today’s children live on a noisy speedway with little time for quiet. They benefit hugely from the chance to turn into a cul-de-sac to gather their thoughts.

The cul-de-sac in this case is 20–30 minutes at the same time each week in the same room. Tell your child that this time is for you and them to play in whatever way they wish with the specific toys provided. According to age, you could suggest they choose a name for this time to make it special (and to prove this, you would of course leave the veg-peeling till later and turn the mobile off!).

Basic toys are best because they leave the child imaginative freedom. Suitable items would include:
• a large tray (minimum 60x40x15cm) of damp sand
• some self-hardening clay
• paper, paint and felt pens
• a play mat featuring roads and buildings
• some Duplo Lego vehicles and people (the fiddly sort don’t mix with sand)
• small plastic people and animals
• dolls plus clothes, shawls, drinking bottle, nappies
• basic doctor set – stethoscope, thermometer, syringe, blanket, cushion
• animal glove puppets (try
• two telephones
• a plastic tea set able also to survive the sand tray
• dolls house with bendy occupants (shoe boxes work well)
Both boys and girls play with these in surprising ways if the time is private and safe.

Try to refrain from hinting what your child might do! Whatever they choose should be acceptable – within boundaries you agree on beforehand. Then watch with curious interest and help if asked. As you watch:
• Comment on what is happening. ‘Wow, chimp is stamping hard on snake.’ ‘You’re painting that ball bright red.’ ‘You’re stuffing all those people into the bath.’ This raises awareness of what they’re doing without moving them on (the temptation is to ask why chimp is stamping, or to suggest they add stripes to the ball!).
• Observe and reflect the emotion being expressed, keeping to the child’s story. If your child says his own angry words to a plastic figure, it’s okay to say: ‘You sound really angry with that man.’ But if he makes the tiger cower behind a wall of sand then you say: ‘Tiger looks really frightened.’ You’re naming emotions and raising awareness of them so that they can be accepted and worked through safely.

It’s hard at first to limit yourself to observations like this – so don’t worry too much about getting it ‘wrong’ – but the evidence is that children are empowered by your interest in what they do and the importance you give to their choices. This may well include role-play so have a few different ‘voices’ at the ready. If you don’t know what to do next, either wait till you’re told, or ask: ‘Do you want me to run away/put this here?’ Remember, it’s not a skills contest but a therapeutic opportunity for them sort out their inner world.

Let’s see how this kind of child-centred play looks in action.

Liam telephones you and asks you to ‘come round’. You turn up at his ‘house’, and no one answers. You invent some disappointed/puzzled words and ‘go home’. (This is within your assigned role!) You haven’t been told any more, so you wait. The phone rings again. Liam invites you to call him back at seven. When you do, he doesn’t answer. He might be teasing you, but is more likely making you feel how he feels when someone has not kept promises about phoning or coming. He is turning the tables and gaining some sense of control – when in real life, there is pain and confusion. He may invent an ending he would prefer – which helps him cope.

If Liam were your child, you would now know that this is uppermost in his mind, despite him seeming not to care. You could speak to the person who let him down if you thought it might help. Or make sure all his current carers try to be as reliable as possible so that he feels more able to accept the irresponsible one. Verbalising in the play ‘how annoying it is when people don’t do what they say’ would also make him feel understood.

Rebecca builds a mountain in the sand tray and adds some plastic animals. You’re asked to help make a sandstorm and she moves brown bear to rescue some baby animals. (You reflect all this as it happens – trying not to sound like a parrot!) Then brown bear climbs the mountain and deliberately starts to crumble it onto a baby tiger feeding at its mother’s breast. Brown bear watches as the baby is buried, then turns away to go ‘home’.

If Rebecca is your child and you have just announced or had a new baby, you might realise now that she has mixed feelings about the newcomer. So you point out that the brown bear seems to want the baby tiger to die – just as you pointed out earlier that he was saving the lives of the babies. All her feelings (projected onto animals for safety) must be accepted without judgement. She can’t help having them, and they’re better expressed and worked through than ignored and left to fester. And when not playing, you could maybe avoid telling her she’ll ‘love the baby’.

Dylan continually plays out stories of crashes and fatal accidents with the toy cars. Has he overheard too much news on television that is worrying him? Is something going wrong at school? Has one parent died?

When you become aware of Dylan’s preoccupation, you are half way to helping him resolve it because you can talk about things more openly. There will be a corresponding change in his play when he has resolved his worries sufficiently.

If you allow children to play in this way and express their real feelings – with you taking an interested part in the proceedings without suggesting or judging – they will work through troubling events, reorganise their world and move out again into the speedway with raised self esteem and a greater ability to cope.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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