Play therapy honors the sanctity of the child-parent relationship, as well as the child’s developmental capacity, while helping the child find his way to feeling loved and being loving in the face of the very human context he lives in. It helps the child know that there are a multitude of ways to approach life, some lead to good feeling and some don’t. His natural inclination to joy has him choose the former.
Are innocent and vulnerable and feel safe and good about themselves in knowing they are of quality substance. In a child’s psychology, he/she is made of the same ‘substance’ as his parents. Developmentally, young children simply don’t perceive the defects of their parents as such. If there is suffering, the child believes it’s a reflection of something wrong with himself, not with the parent. If the child is taught that either parent is defective, it is the same as the child being told he is of defective substance. This is why even abused children usually see their parents as good, valuable, important.
Sometimes a parent’s ‘defect’ is so harmful that the child’s life is threatened by it, e.g. physical abuse, an alcoholic parent driving while intoxicated. In these situations the child needs to be taught of the parent’s limitation to protect the child’s physical safety, and it must be appreciated that it is at a cost to the child psychologically. Being asked to hold information that is beyond the child’s developmental capacity to hold, is injurious to the child. In such a case, therapy helps the child with the internal confusion that results, and helps him work through the assault on his self-image and feeling of safety. The child I just described, in having adults validate his experience, is likely to work through the challenge. Another child, who experiences harmfulness but has no adult to validate it, as in children who have been harmed ‘in secret’ e.g. a sexual molestation, is more likely to evidence symptoms of trauma that get blamed on the make-up of the child, exasperating the damage to the child. In these instances, therapy is helpful in uncovering the causal level of the difficult behavior, and helping the child feel safe in acknowledging the trauma.
In a ‘usual’ family, there is stress. The stress might be from the harder side of life such as couples having charged issues with each other, or divorcing, mothers and fathers with anxiety, depression, tempers, illnesses, economic pressures, etc. Stress can also come from the triumphs in life, where a parent is a community leader, sports figure, or executive where the demands of his/her career responsibilities, simply take time and attention away from what might be ideal for the family.
Sometimes it is the child’s temperment that is the stressor. We are each born with a unique temperment, some of us are easy-going and can more easily adapt to the demands of our environment. Some of us have a more demanding, rigid, temperment and find adapting to the realities of time and space, daily transitions, relationships with others, rules, or learning itself, regularly overwhelming. Whatever the source of stress, the child needs support in finding a way to get his needs met, in the face of ongoing family issues, and the demands of reality. I would not ask a child to verbalize things he is too young to articulate, and it would be injurious to him for me to put into words issues he is best protected from and that his own defenses are protecting him from.
So, with young children I use ‘play therapy’. The child’s experience is that we are playing. Through the use of storymaking, drawings, doll figures, and games, the child’s approach to life, and conclusions he holds about himself and other, are revealed. I suggest scenarios that might be a better ‘approach’ or that questions a certain ‘conclusion’ by changing moments in the story we are ‘playing’. Play therapy works directly on the subconscious ‘conclusions’ without having to bring them into conversation. Very often however as the child is inspired to try a new ‘approach’ and it works, he does come in and tell me of an event that reflects he got the message and is integrating a new way.
I worked under a grant for pregnant addicted teenagers, as well as for two years in an affluent high school under a grant for drug and alcohol prevention and intervention, my practice is in an affluent town, and I volunteer hours at an inner city H.S., so my work continues to be with teenagers from diverse contexts. The developmental pull of the teen years is to separate from parents just as we are becoming privy to the aspects of adult life that have potential to devastate & that we most need trustworthy guidance to navigate: alcohol, drugs, sex, driving, and expanded time in unsupervised activities.
I help young people hold the inquiries that would help them make choices that put or keep their life in a positive direction, choose positive peer circles, and develop skillfulness in resolving issues with their parents and siblings. I help young people cultivate gratitude and self-awareness.