Published by Simon Brown

Categorised in Health & Wellbeing

What is play therapy?

In the Spring of 2018, when we were still able to walk around freely, I started working for a foster care organisation as a self-employed play therapist. Play therapy is a way of helping children to help themselves through play. Most children’s first language (way of expression) is play and they don’t forget it. 

For the children I work with, many of whom have lived through trauma and struggle with anxiety, talking about what has happened may be too confrontational. Often, children just do not have the right words to communicate what has happened, or how they are feeling. Using play can make it easier. 

Play therapy can involve using toys, playing games, role-play, using a sand tray and miniature toys. It may involve musical instruments, different forms of movement, using art and craft materials, or any other materials of interest to the child you are supporting (so long as they are safe, of course). 

Do play therapists work with carers are well as children?

Initially I only worked with foster children and sent the odd email offering advice to their carers. As time went on though, my role changed slightly and I and my colleagues now give much more support and advice to carers through emails, phone calls, one to one meetings (when we’re allowed) and reflective group work.

Care is much more than a full-time job. Care is intense and there are very few breaks, especially during lockdown. The sudden addition of Statutory Instrument *445 to The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 only makes this more so. Foster carers need more support than ever before.

Foster carers need more support than ever before.

Vanessa Kroll, Bright Star Therapy

In my work I see differences in the way that children respond to the trauma that has happened to them, the way that children are fostered and I see differences in the amount of support and information carers are given by various agencies, organisations and councils. So, when FamilyCarersNet invited me to share my tips with you, I had plenty of lived experiences to draw from.

Of course, each child and each carer is different and there is no one-size fits all solution. With that caveat in place though, here are the four tips I think work best when applied long-term for most carers of children with additional needs.

Tip 1: Validate, validate, validate …

There are different ways of responding to others when they’re sharing their feelings with us. We might tell them not to worry, that everything will be ok, or to be brave and get on with it. We don’t like seeing our kids upset, it is uncomfortable seeing them struggle and so we try to help them as best as we can in the hope they will be happy as soon as possible.

We’re being very kind, but at the same time by doing this, we’re implying to kids that their feelings aren’t the right ones to have, possibly creating a slight inner struggle. As adults most of us know that inner struggle and I think we can agree that life would be much easier without it.

So, my first tip is to validate your child’s feelings. Tell them that you understand that they’re feeling a certain way, if what has happened is unfair, validate their feeling, tell them it is and let them know that they have every right to feel the way they do.

It is possible to do this in a way that sticks to your boundaries. It’s also possible to validate their feelings without joining in with them.

When we listen and validate the feelings of children, then their inner struggle can disappear and the weight that is on their shoulder can become a little lighter. They grow to know that their feelings and that, indeed, they themselves are accepted. 

When we listen and validate the feelings of children, then their inner struggle can disappear and the weight that is on their shoulder can become a little lighter. They grow to know that their feelings and that, indeed, they themselves are accepted.

Vanessa Kroll, Bright Star Therapy

Sometimes when you start doing this, a child will keep coming with a lot more feelings for a little while. This should slow down again. They are being heard the way they need to be in a safe way and so everything else needs to be shared to. It can be a bit overwhelming for the listener, but stick with it if you can, it’s worth it. It’s great for adults too by the way.

 Tip 2: See and say

My second tip is to notice any emotions or activities that your child is doing and describe them to them, for example: 

  • “I can see you’re looking angry / anxious / happy” 
  • “I can see that you are concentrating / doing your best / having a great time / jumping very high.” 

 This helps a child, who may have missed out on this previously, to recognise their feelings as it helps them to feel noticed and this too leads to them feeling accepted. 

Tip 3: Ask “What is the behaviour trying to tell me?”

Some children struggle for whatever reason with their behaviour. It might help to see what the behaviour is trying to tell you.

Controlling behaviour

Is a child being ‘manipulative’ and are they trying to control everything? Imagine the times in your life when you have felt like trying to control something, it is often when life feels out of control and by controlling something you try to create a safer space for yourself, a space or situation that is clear and that you understand.

Meltdowns

Is a child having a meltdown? Perhaps this is because they are so terrified and don’t know what else to do with themselves. What might help in the long term is to stay with the child (if it is safe, otherwise stay just outside of the room) and say calmly and quietly. “I’m here for you.”

It is unlikely that they will hear you because their brains are in survival mode, but at some stage they will know. Doing this tells them that you are there for them, even when they are at their worst. 

Anxiety

Children show anxiety in different ways. It is rarely clear that it is anxiety, this is perhaps because showing that you are anxious also shows that you are vulnerable, which can be scary.

Some children have created coping strategies for when they are feeling anxious and their vulnerabilities are masked by something that looks more like defiance or anger. It can be worth trying to say to these children “I wonder if you are feeling anxious?” Perhaps give them a blanket or scarf to wrap around their shoulders as that can give a safe feeling.

Tip 4: Practice self-care

This is incredibly important. I often remind the carers that I work with to find any moments in the day that they can to just do something that they like, whether it is just doing nothing, doing some exercise, do something creative, having a quiet bath, reading a book, listening to a podcast, doing a meditation, watching something silly or going for a walk – if that is possible. Anything that is just for you!

You are too important to be forgotten about. I often find that when we’re in a good place, it is easier to remember to do things for ourselves and that when life becomes harder, then it is forgotten about, even though that is the time that you need it most. If you tend to forget, try adding it to your to do list. I recently read somewhere that imagining an experience that you had that made you happy, will create serotonins, naturally occurring hormones that make you feel happy, so maybe put up pictures of moments, places and people that make you smile!

Take care of yourselves, stay safe and if you have any questions, please get in touch


About Bright Star Therapy

Set up in 2015, Bright Start Therapy offers play therapy and therapeutic teaching sessions to children and young people through:

  • Sand trays
  • Arts and craft
  • Drama and role-play
  • Music
  • Puppets
  • Toy figures
  • Therapeutic stories 

Bright Star Therapies travels to schools and community facilities in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. You can find a qualified play therapist near you on the Play Therapy UK (PTUK) register.

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