“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
Often with minor accidents, falls and other “ordinary events,” applying the basic first aid skills you learned in Chapter II is sufficient to help your child rebound. Sometimes, however, traumatic effects may be minimized but not entirely prevented. This is especially true with more frightening situations like invasive medical procedures, prolonged or permanent separation from parents, accidents that involve extreme terror and horror, witnessing violence or being the victim of abuse. In these cases, professional mental health services can be invaluable and, at times, necessary. Even so, there is much that parents can do to help reduce their child’s stress and anxiety. By using the guided play, art activities and rhymes you will learn in this chapter, you can bolster your child’s confidence in coping with the lumps and bumps of life.
Without words, young children sometimes show parents the parts of their experience that have overwhelmed them. Toddlers, preschoolers and elementary school children easily express their worst fears and unconscious turmoil through their world of make-believe, play and art. If your child plays aggressively with toys, setting up the same scene over and over, such as one doll hurting another doll, she may be trying to recover from a frightening Situation. Or she may have witnessed something scary happening to someone else. In this case, help from a parent to move the play from repetition to resolution can relieve her distress.
On the other hand, sometimes children don’t show us their hurts in such obvious ways. They may avoid any activity, person or other reminder that resembles what originally frightened them. Sometimes the child’s new behavior, although anything but subtle, is a mystery. The bewildered family might not connect his conduct with the source of his terror. This was the case with Sammy, whom you will read about shortly.
Rather than expressing themselves in easy-to-understand ways, kids frequently show us that they are suffering in terribly frustrating ways. They may act “bratty,” clinging to parents or throwing tantrums. Or they might struggle with agitation, hyperactivity, nightmares or sleeplessness. Such symptoms can try one’s patience, especially when caregivers don’t have a clue what is causing their child to behave in such unpredictable and disturbing ways.
More troubling, kids may act out their worries and hurts by wielding a false sense of power, steam-rolling over a younger, weaker child or pet. Sometimes children do not find an outlet of expression. Their distress may show up as head and tummy aches or bed-wetting. Another signal may be shunning people and things they used to enjoy. Or your child may try to control his environment and the people around him in order to manage unbearable anxiety.
What can parents do to help relieve and resolve the feelings of fear, betrayal and shame that may underlie their child’s puzzling behavior? Since children by their nature enjoy play, you can help them to rebound through “guided play.” The steps you will learn in this section will help your child move beyond his fears and gain mastery over his scariest moments. Whether your child’s behavior is a mystery or she is engaging in play reminiscent of her trauma, the following account will help you to help her.
As you take a look at the following story of Sammy, a little boy who is not yet three years old, you will see how setting up a “play session” can lead to a reparative experience with a victorious outcome. With the guidance provided after the story, you will be able to give similar support to your child. The following is an example of what can happen when an ordinary fall, requiring a visit to the emergency room for stitches, goes awry. It also shows how several months later, Sammy’s terrifying experience was transformed through play into a renewed sense of confidence and joy.
THE STORY OF SAMMY
Sammy has been spending the weekend with his grandparents, where I am their guest. He is being an impossible tyrant, aggressively and relentlessly trying to control his new environment. Nothing pleases him; he displays a foul temper every waking moment. When he is asleep, he tosses and turns as if wrestling with his bedclothes. This behavior is not entirely unexpected from a two-and-a-half-year-old whose parents have gone away for the weekend—children with separation anxiety often act it out. Sammy, however, has always enjoyed visiting his grandparents, and this behavior seems extreme to them.
They confide to me that six months earlier, Sammy fell off his high chair and split his chin open. Bleeding heavily, he was taken to the local emergency room. When the nurse came to take his temperature and blood pressure, he was so frightened that she was unable to record his vital signs. The child was then strapped down in a “pediatric papoose” (a board with flaps and Velcro straps). With his torso and legs immobilized, the only parts of his body he could move were his head and neck—which, naturally, he did, as energetically as he could. The doctors responded by tightening the restraint and immobilizing his head with their hands in order to suture his chin.
After this upsetting experience, mom and dad took Sammy out for a hamburger and then to the playground. His mother was very attentive and showed her son that she truly understood how scary and painful the ordeal was for him. Soon, all seemed forgotten. However, the boy’s overbearing attitude began shortly afterwards. Could Sammy’s tantrums and controlling behavior be related to his perceived helplessness from this trauma? I discovered that Sammy had been to the emergency room several times with various injuries, though he had never displayed this degree of terror and panic. When his parents returned, we agreed to explore whether there might be a traumatic charge still associated with this recent episode.
We all gathered in the cabin where I was staying. With parents, grandparents and Sammy watching, I placed his stuffed Pooh Bear on the edge of a chair in such a way that it immediately fell to the floor. We decided that it was hurt and had to be taken to the hospital. Sammy shrieked, bolted for the door and ran across a footbridge and down a narrow path to the creek. Our suspicions were confirmed. His most recent visit to the hospital was neither harmless nor forgotten. Sammy’s behavior told us that this game was potentially overwhelming for him.
Sammy’s parents brought him back from the creek. He clung frantically to his mother as we prepared for another game. We reassured him that we would all be there to help protect Pooh Bear. Again he ran—but this time only into the next room. We followed him in there and waited to see what would happen next. Sammy ran to the bed and hit it with both arms while looking at me expectantly.
“Mad, huh?” I said. He gave me a look that confirmed my question. Interpreting his expression as a go-ahead sign, I put Pooh Bear under a blanket and placed Sammy on the bed next to him. “Sammy, let’s all help Pooh Bear.” I held Pooh Bear under the blanket and asked everyone to help. Sammy watched with interest but soon got up and ran to his mother. With his arms held tightly around her legs, he said, “Mommy, I’m scared.”
Without pressuring Sammy, we waited until he was ready and willing to play the game again. The next time Grandma and Pooh Bear were held down together, and Sammy actively participated in their rescue. When Pooh Bear was freed, Sammy ran to his mother, clinging even more tightly than before. He began to tremble and shake in fear, and then, dramatically, his chest opened up in a growing sense of excitement and pride. Here we see the transition between traumatic re-enactment and healing play. The next time he held on to mommy, there was less clinging and more excited jumping.
We waited until Sammy was ready to play again. Everyone except Sammy took a turn being rescued with Pooh. Each time, Sammy became more vigorous as he pulled off the blanket and escaped into the safety of his mother’s arms. When it was Sammy’s turn to be held under the blanket with Pooh Bear, he became quite agitated and fearful. He ran back to his mother’s arms several times before he was able to accept the ultimate challenge. Bravely, he climbed under the blankets with Pooh while I held the blanket gently down. I watched his eyes grow wide with fear, but only for a moment this time. Then he grabbed Pooh Bear, shoved the blanket away and flung himself into his mother’s arms. Sobbing and trembling, he screamed, “Mommy, get me out of here! Mommy, get this thing off of me!” His startled father told me that these were the exact words Sammy screamed while imprisoned in the papoose at the hospital. He remembered this clearly because he had been quite surprised by his son’s ability to make such a direct, well-spoken demand at such a young and tender age.
We went through the escape several more times. Each time Sammy exhibited more power and more triumph. Instead of running fearfully to his mother, he jumped excitedly up and down. With every successful escape, we all clapped and danced together, cheering, “Yeah for Sammy, yeah yeah! Sammy saved Pooh Bear!” Two-and-a-half-year-old Sammy had achieved mastery over the experience that had shattered him a few months earlier. The trauma-driven, aggressive, foul-tempered behavior used in an attempt to control his environment disappeared. And his “hyperactive” and avoidant behavior during the reworking of his medical trauma was transformed into triumphant play.
Four Principles to Guide Children’s Play Toward Resolution
The following analysis of Sammy’s play experience is designed to help you understand and apply the following principles when working with your own children.
1. Let the child control the pace of the game.
In the last chapter, you learned the importance of attuning to your child’s needs. Healing takes place in a moment-by-moment slowing down of time. That is true for everyone! Your child’s pace may be very different from yours. In order to help your child feel safe, follow her pace and rhythm; don’t subject her to yours. If you put yourself in your child’s “shoes” through careful observation of her behavior, you will learn quickly how to resonate with her. Let’s look at Sammy’s behavior.
What Sammy “Told” Us
By running out of the room when Pooh Bear fell off the chair, Sammy told us quite clearly that he was not ready to engage in this new activating “game.”
What We Did to Help Sammy Feel Safe
Sammy had to be “rescued” by his parents, comforted and brought back to the scene before continuing. We all had to assure Sammy that we would be there to help protect Pooh Bear. By offering this support and reassurance, we helped Sammy move closer to playing the game.
What Sammy “Told” Us
When Sammy ran into the bedroom instead of out the door, he was telling us that he felt less threatened and more confident of our support. Children may not state verbally whether they want to continue, so take cues from their behavior and responses. Respect their wishes in whatever way they choose to communicate. Children should never be forced to do more than they are willing and able to do.
What You Can Do to Help Your Child
Slow down the process if you notice signs of fear, constricted breathing, stiffening or a dazed (dissociated) demeanor. These reactions will dissipate if you simply wait quietly and patiently while reassuring your child that you are still by their side and on their side. Usually, your youngster’s eyes and breathing will tell you when it’s time to continue.
Read Sammy’s story again and pay particular attention to the places that indicate his decision to continue the game. There are three explicit examples in addition to the one cited above.
2. Distinguish among fear, terror and excitement.
Experiencing fear or terror for more than a brief moment during guided play usually will not help the child move through the trauma. Most children will take action to avoid such overwhelming feelings. Let them! At the same time you are helping to bring the child back to, and “touch-into,” the challenging sensations and feelings they are trying to avoid, but without being overwhelmed. Try to discern whether he is avoiding or has accessed his fear and made an empowered escape. The following is a clear-cut example to help you develop the skill of “reading” when a break is needed and when it’s time to guide the momentum forward.
What Sammy “Told” Us
When Sammy ran down to the creek, he was demonstrating avoidance behavior. In order to resolve his traumatic reaction, Sammy had to feel that he was in control of his actions rather than driven to act by his emotions.
How to “Read” Your Child’s Experience
Avoidance behavior occurs when fear and terror threaten to overwhelm your child. This behavior is usually accompanied by some sign of emotional distress (crying, frightened eyes, screaming). Active escape, on the other hand, is potentially exhilarating. Children become excited by their small triumphs and often show pleasure by glowing with smiles, clapping their hands or laughing heartily. Overall, the response is much different from avoidance behavior. Excitement is evidence of the child’s successful discharge of the emotions that accompanied the original bad experience. This is positive, desirable and necessary.
Trauma is transformed by changing intolerable feelings and sensations into bearable or even pleasurable ones. For instance, it is not unusual for high anxiety to turn into exuberance because both have a similar level of activation in the nervous system.
How to Support Your Child
If your child appears excited, it is OK to offer encouragement and to continue as we did when we clapped and danced with Sammy. However, if your child appears frightened or cowed, give reassurance but don’t encourage any further movement at that time. Be present with your full attention and support; wait patiently while the fear subsides. If your child shows signs of fatigue, take a rest break.
3. Take one small step at a time.
You can never move too slowly in renegotiating a traumatic event. Traumatic play is repetitious almost by definition. Make use of this cyclical characteristic. The key difference between “renegotiation” and traumatic play is that in renegotiation there are incremental differences in the child’s responses and behaviors in moving toward mastery and resolution.
What Sammy “Told” Us
When Sammy ran into the bedroom instead of out the door, he was responding with a different behavior indicative that progress had been made.
Monitoring Your Child’s Progress
No matter how many repetitions it takes, if your child is responding differently—such as with a slight increase in excitement, with more speech or with more spontaneous movements—he is moving through the trauma. If the child’s responses appear to be moving in the direction of compulsive repetition instead of expansion and variety, you may be attempting to move too fast, causing too much arousal for your child to make progress.
How to Help Your Child Take One Small Step at a Time
Ground yourself and pay attention to your sensations until your own breathing brings a sense of calm, confidence and spontaneity. Slow down the rate of change by breaking the play into smaller increments. This may seem contradictory to what was stated earlier about following your child’s pace. However, it is the wise parent who will prevent her child from getting too agitated and overwhelmed. In order to do this, you may need to slow down the pace of the game.
If your child appears wound up, it’s OK to invite some healing steps. For example, after a medical trauma you might say, “Let’s see, I wonder what we can do so (Pooh Bear, Dolly, etc.) doesn’t get scared before you (the pretend doctor/nurse) give him a shot?” Often children will come up with creative solutions that demonstrate exactly what kind of care or reassurance was missing from their experience.
Don’t be concerned about how many times you have to go through what seems to be the same old thing. (We engaged Sammy in playing the game with Pooh Bear at least ten times. Sammy was able to renegotiate his traumatic responses fairly quickly. Your child might require more time.) You don’t need to do it all in one day! Resting and time help your child to internally reorganize his experience at subtle levels. If the resolution is not complete, your child will return to a similar phase when given the opportunity to continue the play at another time.
If these suggestions don’t seem to help, re-read this chapter and look closely at the possible role you are playing and observe more carefully how your child is responding. Perhaps you are becoming frustrated, unduly frightened or possibly missing some of your child’s signals. It takes practice to be in sync with subtleties. Once your child begins responding, forget your concerns and enjoy the game!
4. Become a safe container
Remember that nature is on your side. For the parent, perhaps the most difficult and important aspect of assisting your child in transforming a traumatic event is maintaining your own belief that things willturn out OK. This feeling comes from inside you and is projected out to your child. It becomes a container that surrounds the child with a feeling of confidence. This may be particularly difficult if your child resists your attempts to help him.
If your child resists, be patient and reassuring. The instinctive part of your child wants to rework her experience. All you have to do is wait for that part to feel confident and safe enough to assert itself. If you are excessively worried about your own capability to help your child, you may inadvertently send a message to your child that she needs to help you curb your anxiety. Adults with their own unresolved trauma may be particularly susceptible to falling into this trap. If the process continues to be frustrating don’t push it. Instead, find a professional play therapist to help your child; and please don’t procrastinate in seeking help for yourself!
Discussion: What Might Happen to Children Who Don’t Receive Help?
If Sammy hadn’t received help, would he have become more anxious, hyperactive, clinging and controlling? Or would his trauma possibly have resulted in bed-wetting or in avoidant behaviors later? Would he have developed physical symptoms like tummy aches, migraine headaches and anxiety attacks without knowing why? All of these speculations are possible, and equally impossible to pin down. We cannot know how, when or even whether a child’s traumatic experience will invade his or her life in another form. However, we can help protect our children from these possibilities through prevention. This “ounce of prevention” will, in any case, help them develop into more confident and spontaneous adults.
Children like Sammy rarely get help directly following an incident such as this one. You are the pioneer parents in this regard. You will learn that youngsters can easily be supported at this critical time while they literally tremble and “shake out” the immobility, shame, loss and rage from their terrifying experiences. Through guided play, children can safely discharge the intense energy mobilized in a failed attempt to defend against a frightening and painful experience. But they must do this with your support, guidance and protection.
Discussion: What’s the Difference between Traumatic Play and Therapeutic Play?
It is important to appreciate the differences among avoidance of reminders of the event, play that repetitiously mimics the trauma and the actual re-working of the trauma, like what we saw with Sammy. Traumatized adults often re-enact an event that in some way represents, at least to their unconscious, the original trauma. For example, a victim of childhood sexual abuse might become promiscuous or be a sex offender or perhaps avoid the possibility of sex altogether.
Similarly, children re-create parts of the event that frightened them. While they may not be aware of the significance behind their behaviors, they are deeply driven by the feelings associated with the original trauma. Even if they won’t talk about the trauma, traumatic play is one way a child will tell his or her story. It is a sure clue that your child is still disturbed.
The example that follows best portrays this type of “troubled” play. In Too Scared to Cry, Lenore Terr describes the responses of three-and-a-half-year-old Lauren as she plays with toy cars. “The cars are going on the people,” Lauren says as she zooms two racing cars toward some finger puppets. “They’re pointing their pointy parts into the people. The people are scared. A pointy part will come on their tummies, and in their mouths, and on their … [she points to her skirt]. My tummy hurts. I don’t want to play anymore.”1
Lauren stops herself as her bodily sensation of fear abruptly surfaces. This is a typical reaction. She may return over and over to the same play, each time stopping when the fearful sensations in her tummy become uncomfortable. Some therapists would argue that Lauren is using her play as an attempt to gain some control over the situation that traumatized her. Her play does resemble “exposure” treatments used routinely to help adults overcome phobias. But Terr cautions that such play ordinarily doesn’t yield much success. Even if it does serve to reduce a child’s distress, this process is quite slow in producing results. Most often, the play is compulsively repeated without resolution. Unresolved, repetitious, traumatic play can reinforce the traumatic impact in the same way that re-enactment and cathartic reliving of traumatic experiences can reinforce trauma in adults.
The re-working or renegotiation of a traumatic experience, as we saw with Sammy, represents a process that is fundamentally different from traumatic play or re-enactment. Left to their own devices, most children will attempt to avoid the traumatic feelings that their play evokes. With guidance, Sammy was able to “live his feelings through” by gradually and sequentially mastering his fear. Using this stepwise re-working of the traumatic event together with Pooh Bear’s companionship, Sammy was able to emerge as the victor and hero. A sense of triumph and heroism almost always signals the successful conclusion of a renegotiated traumatic event. By slowly and deliberately following Sammy’s lead after setting up a disturbing scene, joining in his play and making the game up as we went along, Sammy got to let go of his fear. It took very little adult direction (about half an hour) and support to achieve the unspoken goal of helping him to successfully “escape,” thereby experiencing a very different outcome than was possible in the emergency room.
Does Your Child Need Extra Help?
To find out if your child’s troubling behavior is unresolved, try mentioning the frightening episode and observe her responses. A traumatized child may not want to be reminded of the predisposing event. Once reminded, she may become agitated or fearful. Sometimes your child may leave the room because she doesn’t want to talk about it; while another child may be unable to stop talking about it. And children who have “outgrown” unusual behavior patterns have not necessarily discharged the energy that gave rise to them. The reason traumatic reactions can hide for years is that the maturing nervous system is able to control the excess energy by sheer will, at least temporarily. By reminding your child of a frightening incident that precipitated altered behaviors in years past, you may well stir up signs of traumatic residue.
You may be wondering, “Why stir up the past—especially if my child’s behavior is under control?” Reactivating a traumatic symptom need not necessarily be cause for concern. Rather, it is an opportunity to discharge any residual traumatic energy and complete the process. This helps to greatly reduce accumulated stress while restoring optimal functioning of reflexes, balance, coordination, grounding, assertiveness and sense of self. It is a direct path to instilling resilience and increasing confidence and joy.
As you assist your child through stressful times and overwhelming situations, we want to caution you that sometimes professional help is needed. Although often parents can help their child recover their confidence after an accident, fall or simple medical procedure, even the most skilled parents cannot resolve everything. This is especially true with more complex situations, such as molestation (especially by a family member). No matter what the event, if your child is having a reaction that lingers after you have given it your best shot, again, it is advantageous to seek help.
On the other hand, if your child’s issue is not resolved in one sitting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need a professional. Some children require a few more “play” sessions with you to really turn things around. If, however, after repeated attempts your child remains insecure or frozen and does not move toward triumph and mastery, DO NOT force the issue. Consult qualified help from a professional experienced in working with children. While preventing trauma in children may be somewhat easy, healing trauma in children can, at times, be complex. This is especially true when there were multiple events, the stressor was prolonged and/or the youngster was unsupported at that time. As mentioned, trauma becomes increasingly complicated if the child was betrayed by a trusted adult.
More Help for Kids through “Make-Believe” Play
In addition to making up scenes with stuffed animals and dolls, like “Pooh” and teddy bears, lots of different types of toys can be enlisted. Kids love puppets and making up stories that their puppets can act out on a makeshift stage. This is especially true for children too frightened to work directly on whatever it was that happened to them. For kids over three (because of choking hazard if younger), small toy figures are an ideal way to engage in setting up play scenes. Dramatic play that includes “dress-up” and role-play also can be a window into helping your child sort through difficult emotions and sensations.
The cool thing about puppets is that they have strong appeal to kids of all ages, even teens. It is not unusual for adolescents to pick them up just “to mess around” and then eventually start playing with them. It is fun to get very silly together with your child. It’s easy to begin by talking in different voices and tones without any specific goal. Encourage spontaneity by being spontaneous yourself. This puppet play gives kids enough psychological distance from their problems, creating safety to express themselves freely. Children who have difficulty feeling and sharing their emotions can almost always have an indirect outlet through the puppets.
After a time of unguided play, you can lead your child in a direction that helps him deal either with the situation that originally caused the distress or with the behavior that follows. If your child, for example, developed symptoms such as bottling up her anger by becoming sulky or depressed, you can guide her to express those feelings through the puppets. You do this by modeling anger through the puppet yourself. For example, “Alice the Angry Alligator” can gnash her teeth and loudly exclaim whatever is bugging her. On the other hand, if your child acts out his anger by bopping other kids on the head or having tantrums, “Angus the Angry Giant” can stomp his feet and announce to the whole kingdom what it feels like to be mad. In this way your child can express himself without hurting anyone. Kids can communicate their fears, sadness and joy as well. During this kind of play, not only are emotions conveyed, but often children come up with the dandiest creative solutions to their problems.
As parents become more relaxed with this type of connection through play, you can take a step closer to the actual situation (if it is known). For example, Mom or Dad can have one of the puppets fall, be in a car crash, talk about an upcoming surgical procedure, be approached in a way that is frightening or mention what it felt like when Grandpa died. Sensations, thoughts and emotions can be explored through the puppets. Children are amazingly resilient when adults set up the right circumstances. They will begin to face their fears and gain mastery over the situations that have disempowered them.
Puppets can be made or purchased. Some fit on the whole hand; others on one finger. You can buy them at toy stores and in the toy sections of department stores such as Target. They can also be purchased online from www.puppetuniverse.com and www.thePuppetStore.com. Or it can be fun to make them with your child. Brown paper bags or old socks can be used as an inexpensive alternative to buying puppets. Simply have your child use colored markers to make the face. Eyes and mouth can be cut out with scissors. Ears and hair can be made from paper scraps or yarn and pasted on with a glue stick if desired. For finger puppets, an empty shoe box can serve as a stage. For larger puppets, a large box or small table will suffice.
Playing with small toys or figurines (for children over three years of age) is another rich entrance into the inner world of an upset child. With the growing number of computer and video games together with TV and movies, it seems that electronic media have somehow taken over our children’s lives. Yet kids, when given the opportunity to use their imaginations, will play for hours with small figures. Parents who are willing to interact with their child will learn a lot about him. Kids can choose such things as cowboys and Indians, sea and land animals, pirates and swords, miniature family members, cops and robbers, ambulances and fire trucks, trees, wizards, monsters, volcanoes, household furniture, babies, doctors, nurses and band-aids, treasure chests and booty, or dishes and silverware. They will use their imagination to come up with all kinds of themes, arrangements and interactive activities on their own, if you let them.
As with puppets, parents can sit on the floor with their child and participate. Watch how your child plays with the toys. Is she gentle and kind or rough and harsh? What kinds of situations does he make up? Does he create hiding places, fight scenes or prefer to play games of escape? After watching for a while, ask your child what role he wants you to take. If your child has been suffering from overwhelm, watch to see if she incorporates any of the elements of the event (divorce, accident, molestation, hospital visit, disaster, etc.). When kids make various play scenes with objects, creating with their imagination and their hands, something magical happens to relieve their stress and tension. The important thing is that children get to express and expel the energy bound up in their emotions. This is how they are able to come back into balance and retain a sense of self.
For preschoolers, a sand box in the backyard can provide a place to sit in and play with both small and large objects. This type of play involves both the sensory experience of touching the sand and the motor experience of manipulating toys and figures with small fingers. It is a marvelous vehicle for working out problems. As with children’s drawings or other forms of therapeutic play, what is most important is the child’s experience of having her world, her feelings and her creativity witnessed by a caring adult. A child feels safe when parents refrain from judgments or advice. Connection takes place without words when there is an acknowledgment of the “hands knowing how.” As Carl Jung wrote, “Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain.”2 The adult’s job is to step inside their child’s experience in order to connect with him at an emotional level.
Dramatic Play/Dress-Up and Role-Play
Dramatic play, like puppet play, gives children the necessary psychological distance from their problems, creating safety to express their thoughts and feelings unabashedly. This type of play is both natural and spontaneous. It’s the easiest way that children have to communicate with each other and with parents who are willing to connect with their world through play.
In her wonderful new book, Hidden Treasures: A Map to the Child’s Inner Self, Violet Oaklander tells the story of an adopted ten-year-old hyperactive boy with explosive anger, despite medication.3 Joey had been found tightly tied with rope to the seat of an abandoned car when he was five years old. This boy clearly needed to be in contact with a safe adult who could set the conditions for him to experience a sense of power, control and escape.
After several sessions of building the relationship through contact-enhancing shared activities, this boy spotted a set of handcuffs on the toy shelf. He then took control by setting the stage. He assigned Violet the role of robber, designating himself as policeman. Joey had her pretend to steal a wallet so that he could come after her and catch her. He played this game with great enthusiasm. During the second session of this same play theme, Joey expressed the wish for some rope to tie her up. Violet brought in rope the following week, continuing this type of play. He went through the sequence of chasing, grabbing, putting her in handcuffs and tying her up several more times until he tired of it. This freed him up to create different play themes that were less reminiscent of his early trauma. Soon after that his mother reported “that he was a transformed child—happy, no longer destructive, calm.”
Like Joey, other children who have experienced frightening situations where they felt trapped, pinned down, attacked or in any other way out of control need to have active restorative experiences. An added benefit in this type of energetic play is that it evokes muscles involved with defensive postures and movements. In turn, this is likely to restore a sense of strength and competence that may have been lost during overwhelm. When children engage in make-believe play, self-consciousness disappears. One empowering activity to help children develop healthy defenses is to invite them to pretend to be their favorite animals. They should be encouraged to take on the characteristics and motor movements of those animals. They can growl, hop, jump, bare their teeth, spring, rattle, claw, swim, slither, pounce and hiss.
Although it is not necessary (keeping it simple is sometimes best), children can have fun elaborating on this type of play by making their own animal, people or fantasy masks out of cardboard or papier maché. As they hide behind these masks, they can more easily connect with their own inner power as they act to express feelings. They might be confronting a fire-breathing dragon while actively dodging the flames, running fast to safety or practicing a slow-motion soft landing on pillows or rubber mats. Other themes might be finding a safe place to hide, winning a sword fight or battle, playing doctor or nurse as they stitch up a cut or pretend to drive a car as they twist and turn the steering wheel to avoid an accident. With dramatic play, as with puppets and toy figures, children are engaged in physical activity that creates the opposite sensations and feelings to those of helplessness and immobility.
Art Activities: Clay, Play Dough, Painting and Drawing
Clay and Play Dough
Clay and play dough are wonderfully tactile. This soft material can be molded and re-molded. Figures can be made and then smashed and re-made. Because of its malleability, as kids feel and shape the bits and pieces it reinforces how things change. Kids can make shapes or fashion figures. If your child is able to form tiny clay people, you might even encourage her to talk to the clay models, saying anything and everything that she may not have the courage to express in person. She can even fashion loved ones that are no longer with her due to death, divorce or abandonment. Young children (or older ones for that matter) can simply make a lump and pound on it, triumphantly wielding power over whatever it is that the lump represents.
Finger-Painting and Drawing
Sensory experiences help children to build a strong sense of self. Finger-painting is a great way for kids to express their emotions and resolve their difficulties. It’s almost as if an understanding of their deep feelings emerges from their tactile and gooey creations. We have used finger-painting successfully with hyperactive children. Some have become amazingly calm and attentive to their projects and report feeling better afterwards even though they were not able to describe their upset with words. It can also be a wonderful bonding experience to paint quietly side by side with your child. Sometimes your child might invite you to join with her in creating a painting together.
For kids old enough to draw, the following activities can help your child to sort out and work through his feelings. Ask your child to tell you about the scene he sketched. Look for signs of both the traumatic incident and evidence of resilience and restoration in your child’s drawings. Refrain from giving advice, making interpretations or judging what has been portrayed. Instead, ask about how she imagines the various animals or people in her sketch might be feeling. If there are objects, you might ask her to tell a little bit more about the objects and their relationship to the other figures. Notice if your child puts herself in the picture. If not, ask if she ever feels the way she imagines any of the characters feel in her scene. In other words, the key is to look at your child’s drawing with an attitude of openness and curiosity. This will allow you to connect with your child’s inner world, rather than superimposing your notions and emotions.
Give your child drawing paper and felt-tip markers in assorted colors. Ask him to pick a color to make some doodles (squiggly lines) to show how he feels right now. If he wants to talk about his drawing and/or feelings, listen attentively. If not, don’t push him. Ask him to draw some more doodles using different colors as his moods change.
Sensation Body Maps
If your child is preschool through third-grade age, have her lie down on butcher paper while you trace her entire body with a marking pen. Help her to make a coding key to describe sensations and emotions that she feels, using a variety of colors and/or markings. Kids are instructed to color and mark different places on their body map where they feel different sensations and emotions using their own personal key.
Examples of coding keys are:
Blue = sad
Orange squiggly lines = nervous
Pink polka dots = happy
Black = numb
Purple curvy lines = energetic
Red = hot and mad
Brown = tight
Kids seven years and older can make a “gingerbread” person shape on a large sheet of paper. Have your child draw his own coding key in the margin. Next, he fills in the body map to indicate the location of any sensations and emotions he is feeling in the moment. Be sure to encourage the expression of both comfortable and uncomfortable feelings.
For kids who are very young, very shy or learning-delayed, the sensation body map can be modified. To keep it simple, have your child choose only two colors for her coding key: one color for comfortable feelings (ones she likes) and the other for uncomfortable feelings (ones she doesn’t like). The outline of the gingerbread person can be drawn by the parent.
Drawing a Scene or Story to Show What Happened
Have your child draw something that illustrates what happened to her. Rather than give specific instructions, tell her to make her picture any way she wants. Children often will put in fantasy creatures such as angels, ghosts of cherished relatives and pets or superheroes that help them to work through their trauma. Remember that your child’s drawing is neither for the purpose of art nor accuracy. In the context of healing traumatic stress, kids’ sketches are for the release of pent-up energy that leads to transformation. Artistic activity is a safe way to explore and understand feelings. Anything goes. Artistic freedom often brings emotional freedom.
Drawings of Worries and Fears, and their Opposite
If drawing the incident does not bring your child a sense of relief, the structured drawing exercise below can be a great help in fostering a change of mood:
Have your child make two drawings on two separate sheets of paper. One drawing depicts a worry, fear or whatever prevents him from feeling good; the other drawing shows the opposite—something that brings a feeling of comfort, hope, goodness, happiness, safety or ease. Often children will do this naturally; they draw a disaster like a car crash and afterwards draw a rainbow. It doesn’t matter which drawing comes first; allow your child to decide. When finished, kids can share with their parents the sensations and emotions they feel when they look at each drawing, one at a time. After the sharing is finished, your child can cover his “worry” drawing with its opposite and notice how his sensations and feelings change. A modification of this is to have him fold the art paper in half, using one sheet instead of two.
Drawing Pictures of Resources That Help Kids Cope
Everybody has resources. It can also be said that every body has resources. They include whatever supports and assists physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. They can be external, internal or both. Children are born with internal resources but are dependent on adults (an external resource) to mirror and nurture them so the resources will become tangible. In this way, a child can call upon her own reserves when needed. The best resource of all is for a child to be able to feel inner strength and resilience after a stressful event has pulled the rug out from under her.
External resources can aid a child to regain confidence and fortify him internally. These help children to cope in troubling times. (Examples include pets, grandparents, planting a garden, a friend’s house, a favorite auntie, poems, singing, playing ball, making things, swimming, mom or dad, stuffed animals, writing letters, playing outdoors, siblings, teacher, God, collecting rocks, biking, scouts, hiking, drawing, reading, dancing, playing the oboe, soccer team, dancing, the mountains, the beach, their room, praying, doing math, gymnastics, playing pretend, looking at the stars, grandma’s feather quilt, paint set, chemistry set, baking cookies, skipping stones, talking to friends, playing tag, etc.)
After exploring resources with your child, have her choose and draw a picture of something that helps her cope. Next, have her recall the most recent time she was with the person or pet or did the activity she selected, and notice how it makes her feel inside (emotions and sensations). To deepen this experience, have her close her eyes in order to better describe and locate in what part of her body she feels the sensations. Younger kids can point to the places inside that feel good.
Nature and Animal Rhymes Combined with Drawings That Build Resources
Simple poems such as the ones below or others that you make up with your child can be a delightful way to support healing. The nature verses on the following pages were designed specifically to help kids from approximately three to eleven years of age build empowering resources. They may, however, appeal to youngsters slightly older or younger and can be adapted in any way that suits your own child. Different verses are crafted for different reasons. Some have animals because kids love them. The animal antics shown here can help your child rediscover strengths that may have been lost … or, perhaps, that she didn’t know she had. Your child can draw illustrations to go with the verses that reflect her own resilience and strength.
[Note: The drawings shown here were contributed by Juliana DoValle, then age eleven.]
A rationale for each set of verses is presented beforehand; suggestions on how to help your child get the most out of them follow. Enjoy!
How to Use the Rhymes That Follow
1. Read the verses silently first.
2. Read the notes that follow with ideas about how to use the verses interactively with your child to get optimum results.
3. Read the verses to your child slowly, observing any responses.
4. Taking cues from your child, try the exercise suggested. Take the time to help him feel and work his sensations through or to discuss his responses and questions.
5. Proceed s-l-o-w-l-y! For some children you might read as little as one paragraph a day if appropriate. The important thing is to use the rhymes as a starting point, utilizing only what is relevant for your child’s age, stage of development and situation.
The first verse, “The Magic in Me,”4 will help your child connect with his own body through the grounding and centering exercise that follows.
Note: These rhymes are read aloud in It Won’t Hurt Forever: Guiding Your Children through Trauma. This CD audio series by Sounds True is a recommended companion to this book. The complete set of rhymes with illustrations is also available in the authors’ first children’s book, Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing, Infancy through Adolescence, North Atlantic Books, 2007.
“The Magic in Me” Tree Exercise
We’re going to play, but before we begin,
I want you to find your own magic within.
Just take some time to feel and to see
All the great things that your body can be.
Pretend you’re a tree with your branches so high
That you can reach up and tickle the sky.
What’s it like to be strong like a big old oak tree?
With roots in your feet and your leaves waving free?
Suggestion: After reading the above verses to your child, pause here to give him time to explore what his body can do. Ask him to stand up tall and pretend that he is a “big old oak tree” or his favorite tree, if he has one. Give him sufficient time to stomp and explore his connection with the ground. He can pretend that he has long roots growing out the bottom of his feet deep into Mother Earth. Ask him to tell you how it feels to have roots that go so deep into the ground.
After your child explores her connection to the ground, have her pretend that the wind is blowing through her “leaves” and “branches.” Encourage her to hold her arms way up high, swaying to and fro to find her center. Next have her move her arms, feeling her resilience like the graceful bamboo. You might have her bend her “branches” from side to side, noticing how close to the ground she can get before she loses her balance. Have her find her center of balance again and again.
The verses continue:
Or you can be like a river that flows clean and free …
From high in the mountains right down to the sea.
Your breath can flow through you, just like a river
From your head to your toes, feel yourself quiver!
Now you’re connected to the earth and the sky,
It may make you laugh, it may make you cry.
It doesn’t matter when you go with the flow …
Your branches up high, and your roots way down low.
Hear the breath in your body, if you listen it sings,
Now you are ready for whatever life brings!
Suggestion: You might play music of various tempos. Children can experience different paces and rhythms, imagining gentle breezes and tropical storms. After modeling a few different movements, encourage your child to create her own. Make sure that your child’s feet are making good contact with the ground by having her place her soles and heels flat on the floor, rather than standing on her toes. If your child needs extra support, you can bring her awareness to the lower legs, ankles and feet by lightly pressing down on the tops of her feet with your hands until there is good contact with the ground. The Tree Exercise is fun to do outdoors on the grass when the weather permits. Be sure to have fun together!
Escape is a universal antidote for helplessness. Every child should feel competent in being able to access the desire to run freely. This exercise will help build a child’s confidence in their ability to identify and escape from scary situations.
Once your child feels grounded you might want to try this drawing activity: Ask your child to share how he managed to find safety after a challenging event. Or you might ask how he escaped or knew that things were okay again. Did someone help him or was he alone? Was he able to do anything to help himself? How did he signal grown-ups that he needed help?
Have your child focus on one or two elements:
1. What action your child took to escape or find safety. (Examples: moved to higher ground, made herself look bigger so she could be seen, made herself smaller so she wouldn’t be seen, walked, ran, hid, climbed, pushed, stood up on her tippy toes, cried for help, froze, shouted, kept quiet, held his breath, made a plan, called 911, waited, prayed, crawled, reached out, held on, pulled away, ducked, covered her head.)
2. Who or what helped her. (Examples: a sibling, neighbor, her ability to kick, scream or run, rescue worker, tree limb, belief in a higher power, a pet, Red Cross, luck, time, medical staff, inner strength, rope, his ability to keep quiet and still, a friend, turning quickly, paramedics, life vest, a parent, her agility.)
Now have your child draw and color his “escape scene.” Afterwards, have him look carefully at his drawing and find the part that brings him a feeling he likes. (Examples: powerful, strong, lucky, comforted, loved, supported, warm, brave, proud, fast or clever.) Finally, have your child locate the internal sensations that accompany these feelings. Allow plenty of time for him to savor them. As he does this, have him notice if the good feelings spread to other parts of his body.
Rhymes and Drawings That Bring Feelings of Strength
The next set of verses provides children with the resources of power and strength. Children need to feel confident to defend themselves (like they couldn’t do during overwhelm) in order to transform trauma into a positive experience. In the following poem, Rapid T. Rabbit will help children engage their innate “flight” resources, which will kindle the power, exhilaration and the crucial energy discharge of a successful escape from danger.
How Fast Can You Run?
Charlie Coyote is ready for lunch
Being quite clever, he follows a hunch
He crouches down quietly in the tall grass
Then patiently waits for a rabbit to pass.
Rapid T. Rabbit bounds down the trail
She stops to eat clover, then washes her tail
Up jumps coyote, he makes a great leap
Hoping to catch Rapid Rabbit asleep.
Rapid moves quickly, with a jig and a jog
With a zig and a zag, then she hides in a log.
Coyote is clever, Coyote is tough
Coyote is fast, but not fast enough.
Have YOU ever had to run fast and escape?
Can you feel your LEGS, their and their ?
You have a body that’s healthy and strong.
You can jump high and you can jump long.
Feel the in your arms, they swing as you run
Feel the of your HEART and the of the sun.
Feel the on your face; does it tickle your hair?
Feel your HANDS and your KNEES as you fly through the air.
Now you have come to a safe hiding place
Take a deep breath because you won the race!
How does it feel in your TUMMY and CHEST
Now that you’ve found a safe place to rest?
Pay attention to all the movement within
How does it feel right after you win?
Be aware of your breath, it comes in then goes out,
When you feel great, you might even shout!
Suggestion: The verses above can be used to deepen awareness of two important elements to overcome trauma—the bodily sensations of escape and safety. In the first part of this rhyme, allow time for your child to deepen the sense of power as he feels the instinctual forces of running and jumping (and any others that may emerge, such as ducking, twisting, kicking, “zigging” and “zagging”). Have him pretend that he is the rabbit as he zigs and zags, running to safety.
When kids associate movement with strength and the power to avoid threat, they develop self-esteem that comes from their core. This builds the kind of confidence that remains even when children are under stress because it has become an automatic “motor memory,” like riding a bicycle. To deepen this memory, after your child has had time to run and explore her strength, have her draw and color an action picture that shows her in motion. If she is too young to illustrate a movement, have her draw colorful squiggly lines that show how the actions feel.
In the second part of this rhyme, your child gets the chance to pause to experience what it feels like to be safe inside his body. This rhyme continues with a further exploration of the location of sensations of safety:
Do you feel the tingling and the warm energy?
Where do you feel it … can you show it to me?
When you feel glad, you’re full of happiness
Can you tell me, , where happiness is?
Drawing a Safe Place
Invite your child to close his eyes and rest comfortably in either a sitting or lying-down position. Take the time to help him relax by asking him to bring awareness to the rhythm of his breathing and having him find places in his body that feel calm and places that might be tight or tense. Ask him to see what happens if he takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, making the sound Haaaaaaaaaah once or twice before returning to normal breathing. When he seems sufficiently relaxed, have him imagine a special place where he feels completely safe. This place might remind him of a spot he already knows, or it can be totally made up from his imagination. What’s important is that your child creates this place exactly as he wishes. He can add stuffed animals or real pets; it can have bean-bag chairs or soft shaggy rugs and blankets. It can have overstuffed chairs and pillows. Your child can be alone, with aliens or have people who love him in the scene. Photos, posters and artwork can be on the walls. He can have pets and plants or friends (real or imaginary).
After your child has had sufficient time to create her space, have her explore it as if she were walking around inside of it. Next have her find a comfortable place to relax in her space. If she can’t find a comfortable space, invite her to make one up as a fantasy. Once she’s done this, ask her to notice what sensations arise that let her know that she is safe, and have her describe exactly where in her body she knows this to be true. Finally, after taking time to explore the sensations of safety, have her draw and color a picture of her “safe place.”
Creating Movement and Change When Fearful Feelings Are Stuck
If, after taking the time to create and explore a safe place and to describe feelings, your child is stuck feeling fearful, have him tell you what worries him. Have him show you where he feels scared and where he feels safer inside himself. He can also draw one picture of himself feeling happy and safe and another of himself feeling frightened. If the fear takes more room than the safety, find ways to help your child feel safer and spend time developing “islands of safety” inside. This can be done by reminding her of a time she felt safe, showing a photo of a favorite family member she feels safe with, giving her a favorite toy or stuffed animal, holding, rocking and hugging or any safe touch that your child responds to in a positive way. You can also have her “build” her own hiding place with pillows and sheets or cardboard boxes and play hiding games.
The last part of this rhyme also helps move sensations that are “stuck” in discomfort. These verses give specific suggestions for what your child can do if this happens:
If you pay attention to the places you point to and name
Does it change how they feel, or do they stay the same?
If they stay they same, here’s what can
To help the stuck feelings right out of you.
[You might even close your eyes for a minute or two.]
See if there’s a color or shape you can name,
As you watch it closely, it becomes like a game.
Your feelings may move from place to place.
the fear go without leaving a trace.
Imagine that you’re at your favorite place,
It’s quiet and safe in your own special space.
Who would you like to be there with you?
Your mother, your father, or Winnie the Pooh?
Your brother, your sister, your dog, or your cat?
Or perhaps Dr. Seuss, with his cat in the hat.
Would you like to be held by someone, just right?
You can R E L A X and breathe easy as they hold you tight!
Or, would you like to have someone close by
Just in case you get ; or you need a good cry.
Sometimes crying can make you feel better,
It’s just like laughing, only it’s wetter!
Suggestion: To help children release uncomfortable feelings that seem to stay stuck, such as a pain in the tummy or a feeling of heaviness in the chest, use the verses (along with the following suggestions) for releasing the sensations. With eyes open or closed, have your child focus on the sensations for a minute or two. Gently ask if the “knot,” “owie,” “pain,” “rock” or whatever they are experiencing has a size, shape, color or weight. Allow sufficient time between questions for your child to quietly feel and process images and sensations. Next, guide him to the present moment by asking how the “owie” feels now. Continue, proceeding slowly, until you notice the “stuck energy” beginning to open up by closely observing your child’s body language for subtle shifts (especially more relaxed breathing and posture), as well as listening to her words.
Toward the end of this section of verses, where the rhyme asks kids who or what they want with them, take the answers seriously. Take some time to validate your child’s wishes and explore his emotions. Allow time to assess and support any needs that come up, especially to help reinforce a sense of safety and security by being a good container for any tears, anger, sadness or fears that may arise. This simply means calmly listening and acknowledging that you are present for whatever he is feeling. Your job is not to “fix” your child’s feelings but to give your undivided attention so that he can feel what’s real for him, and can process feelings so the sensations and emotions move forward on their own as nature intended.
Past, Present and Future Drawing
Another activity to keep your child from being stuck in the past is the drawing exercise below, designed to give your child a sense of the movement of time. It can also assess how your child might perceive her future. Have her fold a large sheet of drawing paper into thirds so that the folds are vertical. Direct her to label PAST at the bottom of the first column or fold, PRESENT at the bottom of the middle column, and FUTURE at the bottom of the last column. Then have her draw three pictures in the appropriate columns to represent her life as it was, is now, and how she predicts it will be in the future.
This drawing can be adapted for younger children. Simply explain that “past” means what happened before the bad thing, “present” means how they are feeling and coping now, and “future” means what tomorrow may be like. You may need to fold the paper and print the words for them.
If a child’s future looks grim and is similar to the past, work with his here-and-now feelings from the drawing that depicts the present. Ask what sensations he is aware of as he looks at the drawing. Guide him to focus on the sensations and watch how they change. If he feels unpleasant sensations, help him to track these until there is a discharge using the suggestions above for releasing discomfort. When your child begins to feel more pleasant (or at least tolerable) sensations, have her check to see if her perception of the future has changed. If it is changing for the better, have her draw a new FUTURE picture on another sheet of paper. As she looks at her latest creation, have her notice and track the new, more pleasant sensations and feelings that may be emerging. Exercise caution in pushing her to feel better before she is ready; allow time for feelings to transform organically. The more you are tuned-in, the more you will be able to follow (like the trail left by brother and sister in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel) the “bread crumbs” that your child is dropping in the dark forest to help you help them find their way back home (to themselves).