Play is the natural way that young children discharge the tensions of their daily lives. When children are picked on at school, they may come home at the end of the day and enlist siblings, friends, or even stuffed animals to play out a drama in which the child, transformed into the school principal, gets to ream out the bully and send him or her to detention.
But when children are too anxious, afraid, or traumatized to play, they can't utilize this natural resource of childhood to relieve a painful emotional state. Instead, they must use their energy to compartmentalize the trauma, keeping it out of direct awareness. Because play is both releasing and disarming, it may be too threatening for the child to give up control sufficiently to enter into it.
Child therapists can help children reclaim this vital feature of emotional self-regulation by teaching, modeling, and setting the stage for the child to play. But as when you're teaching children with attachment problems to tolerate emotions, this must be done gradually.
The child therapist approaches the child who can't play by introducing play activities one step at the time. I typically minimize the need for young children (10 and under) to talk, since they may have difficulties verbalizing their experience, particularly those who've been "incubated in terror," as child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, a senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, describes them. Children with serious emotional interference in their development or who have a history of exposure to trauma may function emotionally and socially at an age significantly younger than their years. It may be more natural for any child, regardless of age, who's developmentally 7 or younger, to work through trauma and other issues in the language of play.