No matter how hard we try to protect our children from traumatic events, sometimes the world has a way of working beyond our control. In my own personal case, both my children have had to come through the trauma of prematurity and ongoing invasive tests, witnessing a beloved grandparent’s heart attack first hand and a traumatic accident that happened on holiday to one of my twins who is now fine. As the people closest to our children, although we are not trained therapists and should never pretend to be, I have found that certain play activities naturally repeat themselves in our house and have enabled both of my children under 4 to find a way to open up about their fears, talk about these traumatic events and to find ways to overcome them or begin to deal with them.
As Campbell and Knoetze in a paper published in the International Journal of Play Therapy states, apart from the many positive benefits of play it has long been recognised that:
children’s play holds significant therapeutic value in providing a safe, protective, and containing space where children can recreate themselves and self-cure (Winnicott, 1942; Erikson, 1963; Landreth, 2002; Bratton, Ray, Rhine, & Jones, 2005).
After traumatic events it is important that the child feels they are in a safe place. Once they feel they are safe they need time and patience to visit and often revisit the event in question, to make sense of it in their lives. The amazing power of the child to find an outlet to heal and self cure is often evident in an act of play.
Here I want to share a few play or creative activities that my own children and I have used as vehicles to discuss and deal with traumatic events:
This was one of their favourite role plays that helped them to discuss and frame the injections they were having. They were doctors and they would dress in white shirts and have all the props and come an inspect the patient, usually me. After a very quick assessment they would announce that I needed an injection, not just any injection but a big one and would need to stay in hospital for a long time. They would then ask how I was feeling and sometimes I would be Ok , other times I would cry and they would reenact what had happened to them. One would also take the role of patient while the other was the doctor and then play the injection game and run through various scenarios. This would then allow us to open the door for them to talk about and try to process what had happened to them. At the height of their medical treatment this was an intensive game but as time has gone on and we have talked, this game has almost disappeared and if it does reoccur the needle is usually smaller and the same fears are not expressed. This roleplay also allows them to take control of the situation and be the doctor, to make some choices.
Reframing the situation, creating something new
This idea was reinforced by Aslihan Ozcan a psychotherapist and art therapist, through a talk she gave at the Turkish Women’s International Network. She has been conducting a project with Pediatric Oncology and Hermatology patients in several state hospitals in Turkey providing art therapy for children to discuss, frame and reframe their experiences. She uses the materials that children are faced with in medical situations, such as medicine packacing, the safe parts of needles and gets children to create art from these materials. This helped the children to frame, discuss and reframe what was happening to them. On hearing this talk I realised that instinctively I had been doing this with my own children by using these materials in creative play and art. The very act of being able to manipulate, control, change and create the materials that can give you pain are very powerful for the young child who is trying to make sense of what is going on.
Free painting and drawing: While one of my children is able to verbally express events and discuss them, one needs to draw or paint to be able to express how he feels about certain events that have happened to him. After witnessing the heart attack of his grandfather, and I dashed home to be with my children and husband during this time his first need was to paint or draw. He was two and a half. He has done this on several occasions and it has helped him to find release and to be able to discuss and revisit events in a way he might not have done if he had not had access to that medium.
Play as preparation for potentially stressful events
Allison McDonald on her blog No Time For Flash Cards has shared her post about preparing her son for a visit to the hospital through pretend play in her post Hospital’s Don’t Have to be Scary: Pretend Play through fears and anxiety. There is an amazing craft idea, free play and books recommended on this topic. A prepared child is less confused by what is going on and has a frame of reference to wok from.
For further reading:
For anyone in contact with children a wonderful book is Windows to Our Children: A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Children and Adolescents by Violet Oaklander Ph.D (a very respected voice in this field), which looks at creative acts and play that can create a pathway to discuss real events, make sense of them and find the pathway to self realization for children. The author interestingly also recommended it as a way for those of us who never found ourselves as children as a possible path to find our own inner child.
PlayDrMum is a blog written by Laura Hutchison a psychologist specialising in children and play therapy who is also a mum. She has a great definition on play therapy and the power of play and a fantastic bibliography for those wishing to delve further into this subject.