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The Healing Power of Play - Page 7


A clear indication that Bobby was healing was his increasing ability to play again, both in the session and at home. He entered the play in each subsequent session with more gusto, even at times with screams of delight. This was particularly significant because the trauma event occurred while Bobby was running around in the backyard playing. Meanwhile, at home, he was recovering his language ability, was less fretful, and usually slept through the night, much to his parents' relief.

But there was one more major step left to accomplish: we needed to "bracket" the event for Bobby—make it clear that what he'd experienced was extremely unlikely to occur again. Even adult trauma survivors often find their assumptions of safety in the world so shattered that they need help placing traumatic events in a meaningful context, so they can realize emotionally that the trauma will not endlessly recur. Children have less ability to put traumatic events into perspective and understand that what happened was a rare, improbable event that won't need to be confronted over and over again. This bracketing of the trauma event was a challenge with a child as young as Bobby.

I conferred with the parents beforehand to prepare them for the symbolic trauma reenactment that I planned to do in the fifth session, proposing that we start as we had during the previous two sessions with having the animals and then the family romp in the clear water. But this time, when the family figures entered the water to swim, some of the children would get out and start playing with the dog, and suddenly the dog would drop off the table into a bucket of cold water that I had colored with brown food coloring. According to the plan, the dog would be rescued by the parents, dried off, soothed, and told that the bucket of water shouldn't have been there and that mom and dad would make sure that it never happened again. They'd say emphatically that the dog was safe now and that the bucket would be removed and taken away for good. At that point, I'd take the bucket out of the room. The dog was to be told that when it was ready, it could come back into the clear water and romp and play with the rest of the family, but only when it was ready.

When the dog fell into the water, Bobby gasped. But when his dad's hand went under the water and pulled the dog quickly to the surface, the mom and dad dried it off, and then made it clear that nothing like that would ever happen to him again, the look of relief in Bobby's face was unmistakable. The bucket of "murky water" was immediately taken away and Bobby was told it would never be allowed in the room again. He was then told that he could decide when the dog would want to go back into the clear water and rejoin the family. In the meantime, he and his mother would stay close to the dog and make sure it felt safe.

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