Play Therapy, Divorce and Separation

The trouble with two: Two homes, two beds, two different parenting styles, different routines and rituals, time spent moving back and forth, shuttling their favorite belongings in order to ease the transition. Not to mention mom and dad preoccupied with their own affairs, frustrated, angry (or worse) with each other, stressed about finances and legal expenses, exhausted from single parenting.

Even in the most idyllic of separations, children feel the effects of divorce. They experience the stress of their caregivers, as well as their own anxiety and fears, whether conscious or unconscious, about a number of questions. Was it my fault? Will I get to see mommy or daddy when I want to? Will I have to change schools? Why am I the only kid among my friends whose mommy and daddy live in separate houses? Why can’t we all live together like we used to? Will they still love me the same?

With the prevalence of divorce in our country, these are questions that nearly half of us adults will have to answer for our children at some point in their lives. So it is vital to your child’s sense of well-being and ability to cope that you consider your child’s feelings and keep an open dialogue about the changes that are happening in your family. Assure kids that it is absolutely not their fault that their parents are separating. Let them know that both parents still love them as much as ever. And never, ever speak negatively of the other parent to or in front of your child (and remember that little ears can hear a long way). Kids often adjust to the divorce by exhibiting new and often difficult behaviors, meant to communicate the pain and stress they are under as a result of this major change. Be sensitive to the changes in your child’s behavior and, rather than punishing, listen to the non-verbal messages he/she may be trying to send you.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in Play Therapy, many of my young clients are struggling with the residue and the emotional impacts of their parents’ divorce. Typically, the higher the degree of conflict between parents, the more stressed the child seems to be; but this isn’t always the case. Even in amicable separations, children can become quite anxious and overwhelmed by the change.

In therapeutic play children process their internal emotional experience (which is often stored in the unconscious) by using the toys and the play to symbolize what they are feeling. With children of divorce, I often see an unsettling quality, a constant sense of back and forth, in the play: the water moves back and forth between containers, the child moves back and forth between the playroom and the waiting room, the characters in the play must unsettlingly move back and forth between places, often the child embodies this sensation by moving or rocking back and forth in his/her own body. I also see a great need for a sense of control and predictability. This child will announce into a toy microphone or loudspeaker what’s coming next each step of the way (communicating her stress around unpredictable changes). She will move not only her own pieces but mine as well when we are playing checkers so that she is fully in charge of what happens in the game. Children who are experiencing even higher levels of stress will often turn to protective and assertive toys such as handcuffs and toy weapons in order to exert the sense of power and control that they are needing to feel as a response to their parents’ separation. When we pay close attention to the subtleties of a child’s play we learn the ways that they strive to express their internal experience in order to feel understood and safe in themselves again.

Play Therapy allows children the space to explore these deep emotional experiences that are often stored in the unconscious mind. Through the play they process stressful and overwhelming feelings and integrate their capacity for self-soothing and self-regulating. Simultaneously, they gain tools for coping with their stress and words to express their feelings so that they do not need to use difficult behaviors in order to communicate. It also gives parents a snapshot into their child(ren)’s emotional world, ideally giving parents more opportunities to meet the child’s emotional needs. Children of divorce develop a very special bond with the therapist who becomes a trusted ally, outside of the family, in the child’s process of adapting to his/her new family structure. With the therapist’s support, the family can express the challenges that divorce has presented and heal by experiencing new opportunities for growth and connection with each other.

Back to School Breeze

This article was published in the fall issue of Boulder County Kids. I want to share it with you here, as well, to give families some tips and strategies for starting this school year off with lots of confidence and smiles. Enjoy!!!

Another summer vacation is coming to an end and we start thinking about the school year ahead. Whether this will be your child’s first time stepping into a classroom or he/she is a seasoned veteran of scholastic endeavors, this transition marks one of the major events of your child’s year. And, as with any major transition, there will naturally be emotions that come up as kids adjust to a new situation. Think about it, new teacher, new classroom, different schedule, different classmates or even an entirely new set of peers… that’s enough to elicit an emotional response from even the most even-keeled kiddo. So, as you’re starting to think about back to school shopping and school supplies, take some time to help your child prepare emotionally for the transition into the new school year. It will help your little one’s confidence, resilience and their social and academic performance. Here are some useful tips to help you and your family get ready for fall.

1. Communication is Key: Good communication is honest and consistent. The purpose is to hear and understand your child. Rather than give advice or impose ideas on how they “should” feel, listen more. Sometimes, when parents let go of the need to problem solve or give advice they actually feel liberated, finding the space to be positive, empathic and connected to their children.
Also, keep in mind that logical responses and learning don’t happen when kids are overwhelmed or upset. Rather, give children room to express their feelings in healthy ways. Teaching moments can happen when they are calm and happy again.

2. Kids Need Predictability:
While they may often speak and act in ways that surprise us, children thrive off of consistency and predictability. Introduce a regular, frequent conversation about what it will be like to be back in school again. Initiate the school-year routines several weeks before the big first day. Modify sleep and eating schedules so that the transition doesn’t come as a shock to their systems. Have a calendar or schedule clearly visible with important back-to-school related dates—and let them help you create and add to it. The more children know what to expect, the easier it will be for them to smoothly fall back into the routine.

3. Skills to Cope: Children look to the adults in their lives as models for how to deal with difficult situations. Model kindness, calm and thoughtful decision-making. Talk about the feelings that may come up when you enter a new situation and you don’t know how it’s going to go (there are no wrong answers here). Share examples and experiences you’ve each had when you started something new and unfamiliar. Actively help children develop coping skills by letting them express their feelings through words, art, physical activity and music. Give them resources for coping when things get stressful or difficult at school (i.e. talk to a teacher, walk away…)

4. Time to be free:
With school, sports, music and a range of extracurriculars, kids’ schedules tend to fill up fast. Be sure and arrange time each day and especially on weekends for kids to have free, unstructured playtime. Turn off the television and let their imaginations run wild. Pretend play is an essential part of helping children learn to self-regulate, to create and follow rules and to develop their imagination. Use this as an opportunity to bond with your kiddo and to get in touch with your own inner child, embracing the creativity and magic of childhood.

5. Be involved: Find ways to participate in your child’s school experience. Talk to the teacher about your son or daughter’s social and emotional experience. Check to make sure he/she is regularly eating meals and drinking water. Volunteer in the classroom. Attend events and school association meetings. Get to know other parents and arrange family play-dates. Your involvement will be something your kids will always remember and appreciate.

A bit of forethought and a few simple steps are bound to make the coming school year a breeze for you and, most importantly, for your child.