Child Play Therapy
Gary Landreth (2002) proposes that “For children, toys are their words and play is their language”. Toys and play help children to process experiences and challenges in their world. Play therapy provides a safe and secure space for the child to do that processing. The child works through trauma or difficulties at their own pace without any outside pressure or judgement. They have control over their play and how they choose to express themselves.
As the child works through their feelings, the therapist attaches words and emotions to something that may not have been verbally processed. The experience of trauma may be replayed but it is in a safe environment, so the end result is different. This helps the creation of a new neural network and the overall processing of the challenge.
Brain Development and Trauma in Children
Children are born with billions of neurons primed and ready to connect. These neurons link to each other in different ways to create neural pathways. Each pathway helps kids process the information and experiences around them. Different experiences children have helped them to create links that teach them about their world, how it works, and what to expect. A simple example is a baby learning that when they smile, their caregiver smiles back. The brain continues to use these new pathways throughout the child’s lifetime. This means early experiences (both good and bad) can impact how the brain processes and then how the child reacts to different situations.
Trauma is not always the result of a massively scaled outside force, such as a natural disaster or catastrophic accident. It can be a death, a divorce, a move, an illness, a separation from a caregiver, violence, abuse, neglect, and even something as small as being the last child picked up from daycare. Trauma for a child is much different than trauma for an adult. It is not limited to a few select situations but rather stems from an almost limitless pool of stress-inducing situations.
In the same way that healthy experiences create neural pathways, trauma also creates new pathways connected with feelings of stress, fear, or other types of harm. Attachment, cognition, behavior, and emotional regulation can all be impacted by trauma. Adaptive and helpful pathways may not be created due to the maladaptive pathways.
With play therapy, children can process the trauma or upset to create new/healthier neural pathways.
Play therapy is appropriate for kids ages 3-12 years old.