by: Isaac Knopp, PLPC
Reset Safe Connections Through Play Therapy
Big Figures, Small Worlds:
A big strong horse was the toy that Nate chose to play with in the sandbox. To anyone else this toy was just a small, plastic animal you might find at pretty much any toy store. But to Nate, who took his toy and plunged it beneath the sand and then looked up at me with wide and terrified eyes, it was more than a horse. Over the course of our time working together Nate was processing the sudden death of his dad. He always chose the horse, because to him, his dad was big and strong just like that horse.
Nate’s play was his way of telling me what he was wrestling with. Our kids have a different way of dealing with stress than we adults do. Play is a child’s way of grappling with the forces of the world and life that they cannot yet grasp. When our children encounter something too big, scary or difficult to grasp it gets incorporated directly into their play. Play is the essential and natural way a child resets their safe connections to others, self, and the world especially after they feel like their safe connections have been lost or threatened.
At times children will be classified as struggling with ADHD or having childhood anxiety, outbursts of anger, difficulty controlling emotions, self-regulating, and defiant behaviors. When in reality these classifications are simply symptoms of the child experiencing frustration in resetting their safe connections.
How do I give my child what he or she needs to succeed? As parents, our first thought is usually education, which is very important. However, often giving children what they need relationally can be a challenge because we feel ill equipped to meet them where they are. Learning how to connect with your child through play can give your child a big boost in self-image and development.
Connect Through Play:
- Curiosity: Asking your child to explain what something means to them can be a window into their world.
- Acceptance: Learning how to notice behaviors or play that seems bizarre yet may make total sense in their world of trying to reset their connections.
- Empathy: Curiosity and acceptance create a platform for you to see the child’s expression of what they are really wresting with.
- Trust: Once connections get established you will notice it is much easier for your child to rely on themselves as well as others. It will also be easier for you to trust that your child is doing important developmental work all the time.
In one of my last sessions with Nate, he walked up to the toy shelf to gaze at all the toys. His little hands brushed over that big strong horse, he then moved over to a red firetruck. He said, “I don’t need to play with the horse today”, instead he reached up and took hold of the truck. Although the horse was small it was big in Nate’s world. Through play, Nate was able to successful reestablish his safe connections.