So what is this play therapy stuff all about…

A child's drawingIn March, I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and found a man standing in my living room. He had entered through a bathroom window that had been opened and accidentally left unlocked on one of those welcomed spring days that arrived after a long and harsh winter.

At the time, my son was 5. The bathroom sat between our room and our son’s bedroom and the burglar was standing in the living room 15 feet from both. It all happened very quickly and was over fast; I screamed, my husband ran out and the guy, slick as butter, walked out our front door, snagging my purse on his way out. At the time, I wasn’t sure if the guy was acting alone or if there were more people in my home, and if they were armed. My son heard me screaming and called out for me. I remember not wanting him to come out of his room in case there was someone left in the house – so I shouted for him to stay in his room and not to move. I must have sounded convincing because he did just that, he stayed, alone and scared in his room. I wanted so badly to run to his room but I knew we needed to get the police to the house so, I quickly got the phone and dialed 911 before going to his room. The woman on the phone instructed me to take our son to our room where he’d be more safe, so I grabbed him and retreated to a safer place. Then 4 police cars arrived with a dog and guns drawn. I told my son the police had arrived and that we were all going to keep him safe. Remarkably, he went back to sleep. The following days were tough. I was shook-up and we had to make lots of phone calls and had an additional visit with the police to follow-up on the break-in and to deal with the missing contents of my purse. Still, no one was hurt, nothing was horribly damaged (a side door got kicked-in), we were all alive and my son had slept through a great deal of the incident.

When he started having trouble sleeping and acting out at school, I wasn’t terribly shocked; after all, I am a child therapist, nevertheless, like all parents I found myself wondering what was the best course of action. I let him talk about it with me but his anxiety just kept getting worse. So finally, I asked a trusted colleague if she would meet with him so he could work through the experience with someone besides me. He met with her and they shot bad guys and put them in jail and he “made them eat gross stuff like crab legs” until they learned their lessons. He worked to regain his sense of control, he was able to express his anger, worries and, in his own way, find justice and repair – not just for himself but to for the ‘bad mens’ who had stolen his mommy’s purse. He went to see her 4 or 5 times and then was done. He did the work he needed to do.

I can no longer tell him that bad people are unwelcome and not allowed to enter our house because he knows that sometimes bad people come in anyways. Instead, what I can say to him is that when bad things happen, we can get through it and that there are people in this world that can and do help us when the bad stuff hits.

The therapist who saw my son has recently decided to move. When I told my son that she would be leaving he asked me if he could draw her a picture (shown above). I wanted the picture to be his own, so I gave him the paper and then largely left him to it. When he was done I asked him to tell me about it and what he said, was perhaps one of the best metaphors for what we as play therapists do for kids. He said:

It’s raining outside and this is a special bubble where the rain can’t come in and Dikke and I are holding hands. There’s a door that bad men can’t come in but if you go out the door it leads to the treasure (the yellow X). We’re holding hands and are happy. The dots (in the bubble) are oranges because sometimes you get hungry and need something good to eat.

As play therapists, we create safe places where kids can face bad things. We give them the courage and confidence to open the door at the end of the session and find the treasures that exist internally as well as externally. We let them know that they are not alone and that they can claim their joy. We feed their little souls because sometimes we all get hungry and just need something good in our lives. So when we slay dragons in the play room, have a tea party, climb a steep pretend mountain or venture into the forbidden forest with our young clients, we are helping to fix what has been broken for them. When we go on the journey with our clients, we serve as witnesses for the scary things that have happened and can validate not just what they are feeling, but also their ability to heal and move forward.

As a mom to a little boy who had a bad thing happen, I am eternally grateful that there are people, like my colleague, out there doing this work. As a therapist, I am constantly humbled by the little ones who make sense of big things in my room. I have always believed in the value of play therapy but our own big experience brought home the healing powers of play. As honored as I am to be able to do this work I am grateful to stand along side the others who have also chosen this path. Here’s to the people who have never grown too old to play!