by Corrine Gnepf, LPCA, NCC

One of the deepest desires of parents, teachers, caretakers, and anyone who loves children is to protect them from the dangers and hardships of this world. We want children to enjoy just being children, worry free, and to feel safe and taken care of. The sad reality throughout the world, however, is a different one. This world is full of pain, disappointments, danger, and trauma. And even the best supervision, protection, guidance and teaching cannot guarantee that children will not encounter traumatic events or emotionally painful experiences at a young age.

Third culture kids (TCKs), because they live in new cultures, travel a great deal, and experience multiple transitions, encounter various things that challenge their sense of feeling safe and secure. Whether it is figuring out how to fit in a culture different from their passport country or their family culture at home, or being challenged with a new educational system, a new language, busy parents, or everyone staring at and touching them because they look different; combined with their normal developmental tasks these stressors add much complexity, uncertainty, and challenge to their young lives. Children are incredibly resilient and they can bounce back after hard life events. But they may need help to process and recover from what life throws at them. Research has shown that most adults with mental health issues have had adverse childhood experiences that were never adequately addressed. It is like a wound that does not get cleaned out before a bandage is applied. If adverse childhood experiences and trauma can be addressed early on, it increases the child’s resilience and reduces the chances of adolescent or adult mental health issues.

What can you do when you see your child, the child of a friend or co-worker, or a child in your classroom struggling emotionally and behaviorally? Asking a child what’s bothering them is often unsatisfying. Children may not be able to answer the questions or get frustrated by trying to do so. The problem is not that young children do not want to share what is bothering them, but that they are not able to because they have not developed the language skills and vocabulary yet to share about their experiences and feelings.

To understand a child it is necessary to enter his or her world of play. “Why play?”, one might ask. Play is the most natural thing for children to do. Play is a must for children to develop physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Children also learn about natural laws, about their family and cultural rules, and they heal through play, too. The importance of play cannot be better summarized than by Alfred Alder’s description: “Play is a child’s work and this is not a trivial pursuit.”

Play therapy is an approach to counseling children that allows them to use toys, play, games, and art to express their thoughts and feelings, and to work through traumatic experiences, emotional difficulties, or interpersonal issues. Garry L. Landreth says, “Toys are children’s words and play is their language.” To understand and help a child work through whatever issues they are experiencing, the play therapist enters the child’s world of play. Children communicate through play what they cannot verbalize because their words are not adequate. Playing out scenarios of their lives helps them process their experiences in the same way adults talk about theirs. The counselor thus uses the child’s play to help her process what she is feeling or has experienced, and to helps her to learn and practice new ways of thinking or interacting.

The key to play therapy is creating a safe environment and a trusting relationship between the child and the counselor. The safe relationship helps the child to express and explore who he is with all his feelings, thoughts, behavior, and experiences. This is done through first meeting with the parents to understand the nature of their concerns for their child and to get to know the child through their eyes. Parents know their child best, so taking time for this step is a priority. Then the child is introduced to the play therapy room, and if needed a parent joins him for the beginning session until he is comfortable with the play therapist. Because children love to play and the room is set up for children’s play, this usually does not take very long. The play therapist will also brief the parents regularly during the course of the play therapy on the child’s progress, work with them on ways they can help their child continue the healing or growth, and provide resources for them to utilize with their child.

Play therapy is best suited for children between the ages of three and eleven. It can also help teenagers who either have difficulties processing their trauma with words or whose developmental level is lower than the average teenager’s.

At Olive Tree Counseling Center we have three skilled therapists who love working with preschool and elementary aged children. If your child or the child of a friend has experienced trauma, or is having difficulty emotionally, behaviorally, or socially, we are here to help. Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet. -Virginia Axline

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