Children and Play: A New Approach to Blowing Off Steam

by Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed.

in Children and Adolescents, Parenting

God Angel

Ten-year old Adam was brought to counseling after Mom noticed he had trouble adjusting to his new life in the Lone Star State. The family had to make an unexpected move, and although it seemed like Adam would be fine at first, his behavior began to change.

Adam was a bubbly, happy boy who became sad and soft-spoken. He also gained weight, and could no longer concentrate in school. He even became a victim of bullying, and Adam wouldn’t stick up for himself.

Worse still, it was a year since the move, but Adam was still having a hard time with the transition. And as a 10-year-old kid, he didn’t have the words to articulate his feelings to his parents.

At Adam’s first counseling session, he was introduced to play therapy. When he noticed all the toys in the room – the play kitchen, dress-up clothes, sand box, and dart board – perked up and said, “You mean I don’t have to talk?”

“Only if you want to,” the Counselor answered.

Over the next several months, he drew, painted, played board games, and told stories. What he didn’t know was that, while he was playing, he was communicating about the problems in his life.

Play therapy works with children like traditional talk therapy with adults. Except with most children, they haven’t yet developed the verbal and cognitive skills to communicate their feelings and thoughts with words. On the other hand, children are extremely imaginative and creative. So play therapy lets them express themselves in a way that feels natural, safe, and comfortable.

Parents often ask what they can do to help facilitate the same environment at home with their kids. This is great, because we think parents are the best counselors for their kids!

Here are some things that you, as a parent, can do to encourage the use of play at home as a tool for communication and healthy expression of emotions:

1. Allow your children to be creative while playing.  Give them the power to decide what and how they want to play.  Remember, how they play can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling, even when they can’t verbally express themselves.

2. Create a safe environment for your child. This allows them to feel comfortable when expressing their thoughts and feelings.

3. Pay attention to your child’s playful clues, which will help you interpret what their play may symbolize.  Remember, don’t over-analyze.  Just like adults sometimes want to “talk it out,” children often want to “play it out” so playing may be all they need to blow off steam!

4. Be comfortable allowing your child to express his feelings. Many parents limit their child’s expression of feelings simply because they feel uncomfortable with what their children may saying (or doing!). Often, what your child DOESN’T express is far worse than what he or she DOES express.

5. Always be patient with your child. Children are great at picking up on both spoken and unspoken rules and feelings. If your child senses your lack of patience, disinterest, or lack of attention, they are more likely to not open up to you about how they are feeling.

Through these techniques, children learn to identify and express feelings appropriately. Putting feeling words – angry, frustrated, embarrassed, and left out – to actions is a major goal of play therapy.

So, what happened to Adam, our reason for talking about play therapy? At the end of our time together nearly a year together, Adam came out of his shell. He learned how to stand up to bullies, do better in school, and even asked his mom if he could join the neighborhood basketball team.

Adam was no longer depressed. He was on his way to becoming a happy, well-adjusted child.

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