Becoming Your Child’s Play Therapist
Submitted by Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
As a mother living through a pandemic, I have become the poster board for my (five-year-old) child’s anger. He continuously asks, “whose idea was quarantine?” Naturally, he wants to place
blame somewhere. I will admit I am sometimes too quick to react when his anger comes charging at me but then I step away and gain perspective on what is happening. I come back, I apologize, we start again. When things seem really off between us, I clear the decks, put off all
other responsibilities, offer him my undivided attention and together, we jump into the play arena. In here, he is in charge and I become the witness who follows his lead.
What I am referring to when I speak of this play arena is the imaginary world of pretend play
where objects come to life taking on new identities, and where every participant gets to act out a role that leads somewhere to the outer bounds of reality. You might have assumed that this play arena I’m speaking of is a place where children belong apart from adults. You aren’t
entirely wrong about that. Children do need their own independent space where they can
imagine, invent, learn, rehearse, take charge, and collaborate with peers. That being said, it can be incredibly beneficial to drop in to your child’s play on occasion when you have the focus and patience to really be there. When I join children in play, I pay close attention to their story lines and the characters they themselves represent. The traits of their characters reveal a lot about the child’s self-image and the ways the child would like to act in the real world. At times they even play out aspects of their parents. (So yeah, you get a good glimpse of how they see you!) To that point, I pay close attention to what character my child assigns to me for the play. There is sometimes a hidden gem to uncover here.
Introducing “Kerchit”; he’s a gorilla designed out of linking cubes. He was developed through our math lesson and then we used him in our play arena. From the start, E. announces that “Kerchit is the leader.” This is the character he is playing of course. Together with his little bro we made other smaller gorillas and one “Grandma Gorilla.” Little bro naturally assumed the role of the youngsters and I was assigned the role of Grandma Gorilla. I find my assigned role interesting because it is still a maternal role but not one where I have any power (as far as the animal kingdom is concerned). Many times, E. references Grandma Gorilla’s older age and how she doesn’t really do anything. In essence, Kerchit has outgrown this maternal character and is now in charge of his own story (aka: life). I also intuit some passive aggression in my assigned role of the useless older gorilla. We have been misaligned as of late and he is telling me something here.
The basic premise of this play is that Kerchit must bring the little gorillas into the jungle to teach them about the hidden dangers. Many dangers come into our midst when in the jungle (e.g. animal predators, a speeding race car, a rock slide) and Kerchit shoots them down with imaginary bullets before they come anywhere close to his kin. Kerchit’s great strength and power are continuously highlighted throughout the play. He is the only one capable of protecting them. At one point, E. makes a most revealing statement: “Kerchit is just so worried about his kids; he doesn’t want anything to get close to them!” Ah, and here it is. He is playing me now (the real me) and he is speaking of the 6ft barrier that I have placed him in (trapped him in, might suffice more). In this play arena he shows me how he experiences me as the worried mother, admonishing him of the dangers in the world. Here, E. gets to be the strong one, sabotaging all of these threats; he is fully in control, the ultimate protector who is beholden to no maternal figure. As Grandmother Gorilla I am simply there to bear witness to his triumphs.
In another instance of play, we create a mobile playground train. It was a very festive and jovial start to the play as we constructed this novel amusement train but then at one point, E. rather spontaneously detaches my character and her train car and traps them both inside a large clear container. (Recognize the similar theme here, of being trapped). He finds another LEGO character who he names, “Evil Mommy” and positions her on top of the container, using Evil Mommy to barricade the trapped child inside. He makes a lot of eye contact with me as he plays out this brief scenario, closely monitoring my reaction. Then he unleashes the child and quickly moves on to a more peaceable scene. As brief as this scene was, he has told me something very important here. Once again, he has shown me how he experiences me stifling his burgeoning claim to independence.
By this point, you might be asking yourself why I am not more embarrassed to discuss the rage my child expresses towards me. The reason why I am not is because if my child really thought I was an evil mommy he would never play like this with me. He is able to show me what’s going on inside because he feels safe with me. Although I am at times bothered when he displays anger towards me in our real life, (I’m not going to lie, it’s tough), I am never upset about it in the play arena. When he expresses these feelings through play, I know he is showing me something he has not been able to verbalize yet and we are getting to that pithy place of understanding. The more scenes we act out like this in the play arena, the more easily the words come to him in our ordinary everyday moments. You see, he first tests me in the play arena, observing how I will react. When he sees that I can handle it, that I openly receive his anger even when directed at me, then he feels safe enough to verbalize these feelings outside the play arena as well.
In one such instance, he directly tells me that he doesn’t like relying on me to make his friends. (He’s referring to the couple of “safe” quarantine friends and the homeschooling co-op I’ve established on his behalf). All new friends that he didn’t choose for himself. He’s right to be outraged. He is more than capable of making friends on his own, in fact I have often said of him that he is the mayor of the playground. He does not need my assistance to make friends, and yet, here we are, I am executing way more governance in his life then he needs nor appreciates. I can’t change this right now but at least we both have a better understanding of what is happening for him on the inside. In the days following this great reveal, he seems to have been released of something and there is a restored calmness and warmth between us; we are finally realigned. There is no kind of talking that gets to this place with a young child.
If you want to know how your children are feeling, play with them. You don’t need to know
what to do, simply ask open-ended questions and your children will guide you the rest of the
way. They know where the play needs to go. All you need to do is follow them there. Be their witness as they process what’s happening inside. There are many things you may not be able to change for them right now, but you can offer them this and I promise you, more than anything (you fear) they are missing out on, they need this sense of internal safety most of all.