Hello Heart to Heart Family!
This blog post is written by Tasha Lehner who recently joined our team!
Have you ever wondered how play in therapy is different than regular play?
First, think of regular play as fun, imaginative, and practice for real life interactions. For example, regular play can consist of pretending to cook. Children may create special sparkly cupcakes in their pretend kitchen that when eaten cause your hair to turn colors. The children are practicing a real-life task in that they are replicating how to bake cupcakes but they are also adding an imaginative and fun component to the activity. Traditionally baking cupcakes can be considered a fun task without stress and the children enjoy themselves while playing.
Trauma play on the other hand looks different than regular play. Children that have experienced trauma often have emotional and behavioral outbursts while they are playing with others. This is because children express feelings of fear, anger, and helplessness very differently than adults. Children use play as an outlet for expressing themselves. As a result, children that have experienced repeated stressful events will often display common patterns in the things they play as well as the manner in which they play.
Here are some common patterns of play seen in children that have experienced trauma. First, children are often aggressive while playing. This may include aggression towards other people or between toys. Even though children may “know right from wrong,” in the heat of the emotion, children can lose their ability to reason and control their aggressive impulses. In addition, children that have experienced trauma or stress get stuck in repetitive play. Trauma and stressful events cause the brain to get stuck in a repetitive pattern as if the scary event is continually on repeat. This causes children to play and act in very repetitive behaviors. As a result, children will play the same thing over and over and over again as they try to figure out a way to turn their brain off of repeating the same stressful event. Interestingly this leads to another distinguishing feature of trauma play which is pressured play. One way to think about pressured play is the dire need to keep playing or to play the same thing again and again. This demonstrates a child’s desire to turn their trauma off of repeat. They may not actually want to replay the event but rather they are desperate to have a different outcome.
Amazingly play therapy offers a way to address the above patterns of play that children display after experiencing stress and trauma. In play therapy, children are able to safely express their emotions of fear and anger. They can replay scary events over and over again in therapy and with the help of a trained play therapist, over time children can process their experiences and eventually change the outcome of what happens. In addition, play therapy offers a set time and place where children know that they can fully express themselves. By using play in therapy, children learn new ways of expressing and resolving intense emotions, they can get out of the repetitive stuck patterns their trauma has created, and they can develop new and healthy ways of interacting in their everyday lives.
~ Tasha Lehner MA