When my five-year-old daughter got diagnosed with “adjustment disorder with anxiety,” there wasn’t one particular instance that led us to a therapist’s office. It was a culmination of strong emotions, big outbursts and perpetual worry over a period of time.
As a toddler, we liked to call her “spirited.” As she got older, however, that big spirit of hers grew and we were getting into unfamiliar territory. Big changes like the birth of her baby brother, starting kindergarten or moving houses threw her completely off track because her routine had changed. She regressed by doing things like begging to come in our bed every night, having night terrors, or big outbursts over things that would typically roll off of her. She just wasn’t herself.
The worry and tummy aches were encroaching on everyday activities, causing her to miss out on events with family and friends.
I would be bombarded with questions before walking out of the door. “Will there be a lot of people? Will I know everyone? Will it be loud? Will there be games?”
We realized that we should seek outside help, not because of the issues she was having seemed so alarming, but because we were out of ideas. Considering one in five children suffer from a mental health issue, we knew early intervention was vital to get to the bottom of whatever was troubling her. There is no shame in asking for objective help, and we were willing to do anything to help her work through this tough phase. After consulting her pediatrician and our friends going through similar issues, we decided that a play therapist would probably be the best path for our anxious girl.
Play therapy is primarily used in children ages 3-12 by incorporating play, arts and crafts, music, dancing, storytelling or other tools as a way to freely express repressed thoughts or emotions.
The thought of our five-year-old going in a room with a grown-up she wasn’t familiar with, and having to open up about what was bothering her didn’t seem ideal. Since parental involvement is typically essential during play therapy sessions, we figured that would help ease her into this process.
The goal is to help children express their feelings and problem-solve healthily while becoming more respectful and empathetic. As parents, we could all stand to have our kids be a little more respectful and empathetic!
For example, one of the issues we’ve worked on throughout our sessions is how to deal with her big feelings or outbursts. We’ve used the game “Pop the Pig” to talk about how feelings can build and build until you feel like you’re going to explode. Her therapist offers suggestions while playing on ways to deal with these feelings in a healthy manner instead of letting them build up. This takes practice and diligence, and the situation doesn’t always get diffused so calmly, but she’s made a lot of progress.
I could read every book on parenting and try to implement these techniques myself, but sometimes our children just respond better to an outside source nudging them in the right direction.
Setting time aside during an hour-long session to reassure her, give her ideas to be prepared when the anxiety catches her off-guard and practice through role-playing has helped give her the confidence to overcome her worry and outbursts.
That’s not to say that her father and I don’t take any credit. We are learning the tools through her sessions, and continue the work at home with firm reminders and boundaries.
Play therapy was not an overnight cure-all, but through work and practice, there is a drastic difference in behavior and our relationship with our daughter. Sometimes we can go for months and not have any issues. Then, a change will happen in her world and we’re at a loss as to how to help her handle it. That’s when we get ourselves back in therapy and within days we start to see her getting back to her outgoing, cheerful self. We feel it’s something that will most likely be ongoing as long as we continue to look for answers on our parenting journey.