If you feel your child is acting out but can’t find the words to express themselves, play therapy can be an excellent solution. One mama shares her story…
I walked into a team meeting one day with the most depressed face ever. My colleagues instantly asked me if everything was OK and that’s when I burst into tears. My daughter was showing some serious behavioural issues and I was at my wit’s end. I had been hiding it really well for months. I had recently gotten separated, then divorced, and I thought we were all doing “just fine” and moving along. But that wasn’t all true. My friends kept telling me how strong, positive and resilient I was through all of this. But guess who wasn’t just as strong, positive and resilient? My poor little girl, aged 5 at the time. She was far from “just fine”, as much as I had tried to deny it.
My daughter had been acting up in school — pinching and spitting on other kids, stealing small items. I was getting complaints from the teacher that I tried to brush off as “normal” kids behaviour trying to annoy each other. She was being very defiant at home, but in such an angry way that I could sometimes see her teary eyes burning through me when she said: “NO! I won’t do it!” but I just dismissed it as her having a headstrong character.
What a strong-willed child, I would say to others. But what really tipped me over was the night-screamings. She would randomly wake up, in the middle of the night, and scream her head off until I came to her room. And she wouldn’t be able to tell me why she was doing it.
After many sleepless nights, eyes red, so little energy left for anything, I surrendered and was finally ready to admit that my child needed help. I made a few calls to friends who worked in psychology and one of the first questions they asked me was: Have there been any significant changes in your child’s life in the last few months?
Of course there had been! Her father stopped living with us, pretty much overnight, and she started alternating between living at mom’s or dad’s every other week. Both her father and I had new partners. Plus she has a new brother at her dad’s new home. There were a TON of changes in her little life. It dawned on me that she was having a hard time coping with all of this, and not only did she not have the words to express her frustration, but she didn’t have the tools to cope with it! Oh my, how do I solve this?
Via friends, I heard about alternative forms of therapy for kids (vs. the usual therapy we are used to, where verbal communication is used between the subject and the therapist). Art therapy was one of them, as well as play therapy. I started talking to Hagit Kirshner-Shalom from Headstart For Life, who explained Play Therapy to me.
Play is a child’s language
Play Therapy offers a child support for their emotional or behavioural problems through play. When we adults go to see a therapist, we talk in order to express our issues, problems and emotions. But a child isn’t able to do this. They often don’t have the right words, or aren’t able to use words to articulate what they want to express. In play therapy, the child is able to express themselves by acting our their feelings and emotions through creative play, drawing, painting and role play acting.
What it’s not….
So does that mean you’re simply paying someone just to watch your kid play? She plays at home all the time, you might think! Well play therapy differs greatly from regular play mainly because of the presence of the play therapist. Their role is to create a safe environment for the child to express feelings, modify behavior, and develop problem-solving skills. The therapist also interacts with the child in such a way that the therapeutic benefits of play are activated.
How it helped
The change in my daughter was gradual, but after about 6-10 sessions, I could definitely feel the difference. The first sense I got was a feeling of stabilisation within her. Her emotions were not shooting to the stars and back to the ground from one minute to the next. She seemed a lot more even-keeled. I received fewer and fewer calls from teachers at school about her misbehaving there. One of my biggest reliefs was the fact that the night-screamings had finally stopped. My poor child was finally getting a restful full night’s sleep (and so was mom!).
Through many “parent debrief sessions” with Hagit (her play therapist) I had a feeling that the night-wakings were caused by a feeling of insecurity: her family had fallen apart and she felt a need to “check if I was still there”. Other behaviours (such as constantly checking if I was happy or unhappy with her) also stopped. Perhaps she was afraid I would “abandon” her, too?
All in all, my little girl was a lot calmer. She felt a lot more secure and less destabilised. She was growing more confident that mommy would never ever leave her. She felt so much better and I was loving the person she was returning to be again.
How long did it take?
My daughter attended sessions weekly for about a year. I trusted our therapist Hagit completely and followed her lead whenever she recommended extending or slowly tapering off. In between, Hagit was always accessible to me for whatever questions and concerns I had. She never hesitated to provide comfort or help if I faced an issue, especially during the first few months when things were still very rocky at home.
I was invited to do “parent debrief sessions” every 6 or so sessions, where Hagit and I would have a talk to share what she observed so far, and to listen to my concerns and observations too.
How to find out more
Play therapy is available all over the island. However, you can refer to the info below if you’d like to contact our therapist: Hagit Kirshner-Shalom from Headstart For Life.
Headstart For Life, 46 East Coast Road, #09-03 Eastgate (Katong), Singapore 428766, Tel: (+65) 6893 3171, www.headstartforlife.com.sg