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The Healing Power of Play - Page 6

The parents took their turns doing the same thing. When it was Bobby's turn, he was a bit hesitant, so I asked if his mom would like to assist. Together they took turns dipping the animals in the water, only to have them spring out again and again.

There are several elements of the play action that are instrumental to the healing process. More than 60 years ago, British psychoanalyst David Levy used similar methods of selecting toys that would closely resemble the traumatic experience. He called the approach Release Therapy, because his emphasis was on abreaction. In recent decades, however, due to the groundbreaking work on therapy with traumatized children of Lenore Terr, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and Eliana Gil, director of the Starbright Training Institute for Child and Family Play Therapy, we know that abreaction is just one of the needed steps. The children also need to derive an experience of mastery and empowerment from the play, and to engage in some corrective action. The action need not be real-world based—in fact, reality-based corrections aren't always viable or possible for trauma events. The action or solution can, instead, be fanciful and magical, which naturally appeals to children and can better provide the sense of empowerment so vital to countering the feeling of powerlessness created by the trauma.

Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk emphasizes the "frozen inaction" that he views as a core feature of PTSD, preventing the person at the moment of terror from taking effective action. He's supported a variety of kinesthetic therapeutic methods, including EMDR, body movement, and dance therapies that allow the person to take effective, empowering action that releases them from the frozen inaction. Play therapy for younger children can accomplish this same purpose. In Bobby's case, the empowering, corrective action consisted of first observing and then participating in dropping the animals in the water and playfully making them rebound, like coiled springs, out of the water, and repeating this action over and over.

In the fourth session, we continued with these playful activities—dropping in and springing out of the water—repeated many times with the jungle animals, farm animals, dogs, and the figures of adults and children. All of them were jumping into and out of the water, obviously having a good time. Bobby's parents' active participation in the play therapy intervention was crucial because they, too, were "shell-shocked" by this horrific experience of almost losing their son, their only child, and had no idea how to help him. Engaging in the play activities with Bobby was empowering for them and for him.

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