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The Best Gift to Give Your Children This Year


Feb. 11, 2020

Pretend Play
Play is a medium through which a child works out his or her inner feelings, worries, and conflicts. Pretend play is often a way a child processes and masters past trauma. When a parent reflects and validates a child’s play, he or she is actually validating a child’s sense of self. This is very different from validating a child’s achievements. Recognizing a child’s performance does not affirm who the child is. When a parent solely validates a child’s achievements, the child often believes he or she is only as good as the next achievement. Many times the result is an anxious child who is a perfectionist.
As a play therapist, the quickest way to get a child to trust and confide in you is to play with him or her.
Without guiding, leading, or directing the play, sit next to the child, and occasionally and warmly reflect the child’s play. After a few minutes, the child may invite you to be a character in the play. When the child does this, the parent has an opportunity to help the child with deep anxieties and worries. As a character in the child’s play, empathize with the character in the play who is sacred, hurt or lonely.
An Example
Recently during a therapy session with a child, the child wanted to play school. She was the teacher and she asked me to be a student. I agreed. She went on to set up the classroom, instructing the students where to sit and what each should be doing. She looked at me and asked, “Where is your homework!?”
I paused and wanting her to guide the play, I whispered to her, “What should I say?”  She put her head close to mine and whispered, “Say you forgot it at home.” I resumed my character in the play, and said, “I’m so sorry, teacher. I forgot my homework at home.”
The child, as the teacher, reprimanded me strongly. I looked at the child and said, “I am so sorry. I did not mean to forget. I’m so worried you are mad at me.”  The child stayed in character and as the teacher she said to me, “That is no excuse! You are punished! Go to the principal’s office now!”
I broke character and whispered, “What do I do?” She whispered, “Go to the corner.” I went to the corner of my office and sat on the floor. The child walked over and said, “You are a bad girl! You cannot forget your homework! I am calling your mother!”
I took the opportunity to verbalize the feelings of the character who was hurt, frightened, and worried (my character). “I am so scared. I did not mean to forget my homework. I am so scared I am disappointing my mother. Please do not call her.” The child looked at me and said, “You have to learn responsibility! Your mother will take all of your electronics away!”
Again, I used the opportunity to empathize and verbalize the feelings of the vulnerable character in the play.
“I am really really sorry. I did not mean to forget. I am so ashamed and I am so scared of disappointing my mom.” The child looked at me, broke character and said, “That’s how I felt the other day when I forgot my homework. I was really ashamed.” I empathized with the child.
“Forgetting homework is really hard. It hurts to disappoint people. I get it.” She smiled at me and agreed. We continued to play and she continued to engage me in her play and assign me a character.
I empathized with the character who was hurt, scared, or worried, aka the child. Once a child receives empathy, he or she feels understood, connected to the person who understands, and far less alone with the troubling feeling. This is healing. Identifying and verbalizing feelings states is the first step towards healthy emotional regulations.
Yet, a child often needs help identifying and verbalizing feeling states when they feel shame.
Helping a child become aware of his or her emotions is essential. Empathizing with the feelings allows the child to have empathy for himself or herself.
Parents spend a great deal of time caring for their kids; driving, cooking, helping, cheering. But the parent often passes by the most important 15 minutes of the day. The time in which a parent can have access to a child’s internal world; worries, struggles, and confusion. Don’t. Stay close to your child. Become aware of their worries. Empathize with their struggle with self-esteem. Every parent can remember a time when they felt small and vulnerable. Go there. For the child.
Honoring a child’s play is honoring who the child is. Meaningful play with a child is the best way to enhance the child’s self-esteem . Playing with a child is more important than forcing him or her to eat vegetables. Have fun. Be a kid. Give your child the most meaningful gift he or she could get this year. Play.
Dr. Erin Leonard
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