The sun peaked through the clouds today for about an hour and I think every kid in the neighborhood came out to see it.  That’s probably not true- the parents probably threw them outside.  I connected with some neighborhood moms as I watched children running through the mud and using grass puddles as slip-and-slides.  What a happy moment to feel the vitamin D!  After a wonderful afternoon filled with grown-up time with lunch guests, the boys were itching for time to connect.  Sometimes, no matter how tired you are, you just know the evening needs to balance out with family time.  We usually fill this time with cards or a board game around the table.  A quick game of UNO or even go-fish “fills the bucket” of connection every time.

Play therapy is not always about searching for facts and feelings.  Often time, play therapy is used for teaching social skills and working through relationships.  Many children I work with begin therapy because the parents see anger or anxiety symptom. However, once you know the facts, therapy is about building communication and working through social situations they feel stuck in.  For this reason, play therapy often goes well into therapy with adolescents.  Believe it or not, I have teenagers that love to come in and rake their fingers through the sandbox as they talk about their problems.  After all, they are only children in bigger bodies (I mean that in the best way!).

Tonight we played one of the boys favorites.  It’s called “Friendship Island” and I ordered from Discovery Toys.  I don’t remember it being this expensive, but here it is on Amazon.com.  I highly recommend buying this game if you have very young children who could play this for years or if you have a child with any developmental delays that will be working through complicated social situations for a long time.  Don’t let the price sway you, though, because today I want to talk about how you can make one of your own. 

The concept of Friendship Island is that as you move through the game board (think Candyland) the players answer questions about what they would do in various situations involving friends, making friends, and keeping friends.  Friendship Island gives different rules for playing based on age groups allowing younger ones to move easier throughout the board and even ask other players for help.  The player rolls the dice and moves that many spaces.  Based on which color they land on, the player is asked a question off of a card of that color.  Questions are true/false questions, multiple choice, and “describe a time when you ____”.  The questions give the children an opportunity to think of times when they shared with someone else, waited their turn, or took opportunities to try to work things out with a friend rather than tattling.

If you want to make your own, you can use most any game board (Candyland, Sorry, etc).  If you want to get super crafty, you could use index cards to write out questions.  If you don’t have hours on hand to do that kind of detail work, consider having certain colors or certain spaces on the board connect with a theme.  For example, yellow spaces are about how to make friends (Think of questions that have to do with how to ask a friend about their interests, avoid bragging, introducing themselves, playing along with the other child’s games, and how to give compliments). Another color can be the theme of keeping friends (Knowing when to tell a parent or teacher, how to work through a disagreement, how to handle hurt feelings, rumors, and playing along together).  Other colors could represent describing successful moments they have had.  Easy questions that give you an opportunity to praise a child for good decisions they made taking turns, sharing, working things out with a friend or sibling, told the truth, etc.  Don’t make this too hard on yourself.  Keep it simple, your kids will appreciate it.  Even easier, have the kids help you come up with the questions that go with each theme.

One important rule in a game like this is that (especially for younger ones) there doesn’t need to be a winner.  This is one of those times when everyone wins.  I know there is a lot of attention on our generation for not having “losers” in sports and games.  The movie Parental Guidance was AWESOME and I highly recommend it, not to mention it is hilarious- it gave me a great perspective on how others might see some of my parenting decisions.  But for this game, winning promotes openness in the discussions.  The last thing you need is a frustrated 4 yr old who is more concerned about losing than thinking about working through the idea of sharing.

I love this one, where they used paint swatches to glue a new game board.

I also love this one, that someone made for a child with Autism, but issues very relevant to all children.

Let me know if you need more examples of questions and scenarios.  And don’t forget to think out some good answers!  Be vulnerable yourself and tell your children about times when you didn’t make good decisions, how you felt, and when you struggled in a relationship.  Tonight, I had the opportunity to tell my boys that even as a grown up when a friend stops talking to me, I am tempted to feel like they don’t want to be my friend anymore.  Yet, the best answer is to go to them and talk to them about it in order to find out if I have done anything wrong.  This not only reminds them that I am human, it also shows them that adulthood is not going to be perfect and free of hurt.

What friendship struggles do you see your children struggling with?

    I’ll be honest.  We’ve been on vacation for 2 weeks and the last part of it has been staying at home.  A majority of our time during these two weeks have been monsoon rain storms.  It seems no matter where we went, rain followed.  I am sick of rain, and I think we are all beginning to get sick of each other.  The boys are fighting, I am finding reasons to run an errand (surely we need something from the store, right?), and Matt is taking as many naps as possible before returning back to work.  So when I started to think about what play therapy technique I was going to share with you today… well, let’s just say I was not sure I was up for “playing” with anyone.  But, I try to be a woman of my word… so I needed something that took little effort from all of us. After some research, I found one using Pick Up Sticks!  Thankful for having some of these annoying little sticks that seem to find themselves all over the house, I grabbed them and headed up to the boys room.  If you don’t have these, you can make paper strips, use different color straws, or goodness… I bet I could have used Lego Bricks and had them build a tower as they chose their colors.

So if you don’t know how to play Pick up Sticks, it’s pretty easy.  The game has a bunch of sticks made up with at least five colors.  You drop all of the sticks into a pile on the table (a carpeted floor seems to work better for us).  One at a time, each person takes turns picking up one of the sticks, hopefully without moving/disturbing any of the other sticks.  In this version, we all agree what feeling goes with each color (blue= sad, red=angry, yellow=happy/excited, and my boys wanted green=sick and black=nervous).  It doesn’t matter what you decide, as long as you all agree.  Hearing them decide what colors go with which feeling can give you great feedback into what they might be feeling or have been lately.  Here is the color-chart I referenced in day 1.

Once you decide, you can start the game, but as you choose a stick to pick up, you have to describe a time when you felt that feeling.  So if you pull blue, you have to describe a time when you felt sad.  As simple as this is (I was certainly thankful!), it can give you great insight to experiences your child has had.

In our stack of sticks, there was one black.  Normally worth 50 points, it’s the one everyone goes for.  Aidan for some reason kept going for this one even though it was at the bottom of the stack.  You can get a lot from watching which colors children go for and which they try to avoid.  Although I am sure he was conditioned to go for the black one, I could tell once he finally got it that he had a lot to process.  He certainly tends to be the “nervous” type.  He was the one to first name the black one “Nervousness” and even though Jack disagreed (he wanted mad), once Jack tried to name the red one, he conceded with Aidan.

When it came time to play the game, any fly on the wall could have told you we were all kind of tired of each other.  As we chose our sticks we all kept getting stuck on green.  I mean how many times can you conjure up feelings of “sickness”?  I made a reference to one of my experiences where I was actually nervous, but felt sick in my stomach.  For a moment, we talked about how when you keep bad feelings inside, it can sometimes make your stomach (or body) feel “yucky” and maybe even sick.

By the end, we had shared with each other moments of upcoming nervousness (of course about moving), and moments of joy (my favorite).  Sad feelings revolved around the end of the school year last year.  I don’t know if they would have had the same experience in a civilian school, but we were blessed this last year to have teachers who really care about our military kids.  Jack’s kindergarten teacher had a PhD in Education, her dissertation on “Military kids During Deployment” (that will certainly not happen ever again!).  They both were sad to say goodbye to their teachers, but it also meant saying goodbye to fellow students who might move during the summer.

Our time together today was brief, but it was a great reminder that just when you think you are needing a break, 5 minutes of playtime can completely change your perspective on your relationship with your kids.  Isn’t that the message of quality time?  Anything of “quality” is good, pure, and full of something, otherwise it wouldn’t be “quality” right?  Whether it’s five minutes of what Matt and I like to call “face-time” with your spouse, your children, or with God- it can sometimes be exactly what you need to change your attitude.

Happy Playing!!

What do you do when you are sensing your family needs a break from each other?

My idea behind doing these 20 days of play therapy is to show you that you can do everyday activities with your little one that also give you insight into some of their inner thoughts.  I know for some of you, the temptation is to obsess over knowing these inner thoughts of your child.  Carrying a child in your body and nurturing their existence in this world can make it difficult when your child begins to think independently, leaving you clueless to what’s happening in that little head.  I watch mothers, well into the child’s adulthood, remain overly attached because they feel they need to know exactly what they are feeling- to the point they want to feel it with them.  This is a recipe for disaster for this adult-child’s marriage.

Remember that your child’s heart and soul are to be tied to their future spouse.  God designed this for the protection of their unity.  The sooner we realize we are not meant to fully “get” them, the sooner we will be content with the relationship we are given with this person.  This should push us on our knees more often, surrendering our control to the Creator who knows everything.

With that being said, on to Day 2!  Storytelling…

We had an hour drive to Savannah to run errands, so this was perfect to do in the car.  Knowing that we were all staring straight ahead made it easier for vulnerable moments in the discussion and an occasional turning around to comfort little eyes who needed connection.

Here is how it works.

1.  The child gets to tell a story that includes characters and any storyline they want- as long as it is not a story they have heard before (no books, movies, video games, etc).  Although they could use characters they know (Aidan asked to use Batman) I would encourage the child to come up with an entirely new character.

2.  I would normally have older children go last, since their ability for detail can make younger one’s efforts feel minimized or “not as good”.

2.  You can ask question during their story to help clarify characters and events (as long as it doesn’t become a barrage of them that interrupts the process).  For example, you can help them start off by asking “How does a good story start?”  “Is this person a boy or girl?”  “How did they feel when that happened?”  “Why did they decide to try [that]?”

3.  Try to pay attention to characters that sound familiar, sound like the child or family members, or part of the storyline that relates to an experience the child has had (bullies, loss of someone or something, etc).

4.  Once their done, use their same characters to re-tell the story that stretches their understanding or coping.  If they are younger and need help, you can retell it and have them help you.  How would you end it differently?  What would that character learn from the new ending?  Encourage older children to retell their own story and figure out the morale of the story (3rd grade +) or what the character learned.

I’ll tell you how this played out for us.  At first, the boys seemed confused.  They asked a lot of questions about telling stories they already knew.  Once I gave an example of my own story, interestingly enough, Aidan asked if he could tell a dream he had.  This was perfect.  Storytelling with dreams, especially bad ones, create a great opportunity to re-write the dream- an effective technique for ending or altering re-occurring nightmares.  Jack was a little resistant (being 6, he had a bad attitude already from being tired).  That’s okay- Aidan (9) is always game for going first.

Aidan, who is coming out of the stage of using fantasy for coping, told a dream involving zombies that were moving on the cover of a magazine on the stairs.  He ran upstairs and looked out his window to find many more zombies coming toward the house.  This was the point where he woke up (I remember him coming to get us in tears).  When we asked for him to try to come up with a new ending, he played out violent acts on the zombies (even though he’s never seen a zombie movie, this is the new playground hide-and-seek game- UGH!!).  We didn’t stop him, even though I didn’t like Jack hearing of zombies getting their limbs ripped off, so as to give him the opportunity to finish.  Since he is old enough to cognitively think through fantasy and reality, we asked him afterwards if zombies were real. He said “No”, so instead of us re-telling the story we asked him how he could re-tell the story again without violence considering they were imaginary.

Resist the urge to “do the work” for the child.  You will often find their own creativity much more powerful than yours.  In fact, self-discovery is always the best way to “catch” new learning.

Believe it or not, Aidan closed his eyes and told himself (in the dream) that “Zombies aren’t real”. He took the magazine to a shredder and shredded it into a million pieces and looked out the window to find they were gone (LOVE IT!!).  It was only then that I added, “You know, if it is your dream, you could imagine anything you want outside that window.  Pool parties with all of your friends, all eating your favorite ice cream, everyone happy and excited to play with you, and lush green grass all around.”  This experience was perfect for him, since he is seeing more of reality and having to figure out what to do with fantasy that is scary.  It also teaches him how to take his mind “captive” and control his thoughts, imagination, and fears.  AWESOME!!

Now Jack was a different story, literally.  I want to unpack for you the dynamics that played out more than his dream because they are just as important.  Remember I told you yesterday that resistance is okay to work with where the child is at? He was tired, but he used this as an opportunity to test something very important.  When it was his turn he blurted out that he has “lots” of nightmares, and some that would “freak you out”  He elaborated slightly by saying that they involved “dying, and blood.”

**Most parents would freak out at this moment.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, and if this was chronic and you saw daytime fears and phobias that interrupted your child’s functioning at home or at school then professional help is a good direction to go. 

But for Jack, this has not been happening.  I knew he had had some normal “night terrors” in the last year, but none that played out during the day.  So when he said this in the car, I took it as testing.

Children often use “shock and awe” to test the adult. 

In a sense, it is a way to see if they can trust you.  Your reaction to them tells them whether or not you can “handle” them.   This is an important moment!  If you freak out, then you can send the message that their problems stress you out and scare you.  If you beg for more information (which they may or may not have) it gives them extra attention- and we want to give them other kinds of healthy attention.  The real test is to see if you can remain calm, let them know that you are safe, not worried, and will be ready to listen when they are ready to talk to you.  Sometimes they won’t unpack these scary thoughts until you prove you are safe, other times they may open up.  Sometimes you may find that they never had that dream to begin with.  I had a child begin telling me about a dream and tried this testing.  As I remained calm, her story oddly kept changing to become more “shocking”.  Once she realized I was safe, she was finished and probably had a really fun time telling a crazy “out of the box” story.  The morale was- I was safe, we had fun, and she could now tell me anything- GAME CHANGER!!!

So, Jack never did tell us about those dreams, but did tell a safer one.  These “scary” themes are developmental, so I’m not worried.  Even though he still into fantasy coping (yesterday’s painting about the future), he is realizing that there is an end to life.  My grandfather passed away in October and that was hard for all of us.  There were plenty of questions about that.  This boy injures himself on a daily basis, but for him- blood can mean an emergency room visit- not life sustaining cells that keep our extremities alive.  He is trying to figure all of that out, and to a 4-6 year old that may play out in dreams where these themes show up in no particular order.  But it does give me opportunities to address loss, death, and life at other more opportune times.

His resistance (and age) kept him from retelling his story/dream.  So Matt finished with his own story about two boys who went on a journey to find gold or silver to help feed their family.  During their journey, they were forced by storms to enter a scary cave.  With one flashlight out, they had to reserve the power in the second.  After getting lost in the cave and feeling alone, tired, and scared, they turned off their light and faced the darkness.  It was only when it was dark did they notice moonlight piercing through some cracks and the walls glittering with twinkling lights.  As they took out their little hammers and began to chisel away the cave walls, they found the walls were covered in diamonds.  To address the morale, he asked, “So, the boys never expected strong storms, getting lost in a caves, and feeling afraid in the dark.  What do you think they learned?”

To which the boys came up with  “Good things can come out of bad experiences!”  Perhaps Jack will test that theory later by sharing more of his own scary moments.

 

For more about how you can use storytelling, visit here.

 

So after my failed attempt to lovingly serve my boys a turkey sandwich with acceptance and unconditional positive regard, we cleared off the table for painting.  I personally love painting with kids.  It’s fun, easy to take out and clean up provides great insight through colors.  Colors are powerful and are used to market products to us everyday.  Green (also the color of money) actually makes you hungry.  Blues and greys are calming, typically colors you find in spas.  So naturally, the subconscious can choose a color to reflect a feeling without having to think about it first.  This is excellent when working with kids.  What colors do you think of when you are angry?  Most will say red, or black.  What colors do you associate happiness with?  Most would say yellow, or orange. Pretty easy, huh?  Try not to be too concrete on this.  If your child has a another reason for choosing a color that seems like an odd choice, they could be associating that color with an object they saw that evoked that feeling or may not be at a place where their emotions are congruent (as you will see was Aidan’s case).  For more on what colors can say about feelings, here is a great chart.

So, this past week, Matt and I introduced to our boys that a move in the winter time was highly likely.  We wanted to give them plenty of time to process it and talk about it with us, especially if anything changes.  I figured this was a great topic to start with.

After setting out the supplies, I gave them a couple of rules:  “Paint stays on the newspaper, here’s how you clean your brush, and we will have several opportunities to paint.  One painting will be on a topic, the other can be whatever you want!  Which would you like to do first?”

When it was time, I gave them the topic “I would love to see you paint a picture of how you feel about the upcoming move this summer.  I’m sure you have many feelings when you think of it.  You can use any colors you like, and paint any picture you would like about that.  You can also tell me about it while you are painting, or wait until you are done.”

I gave them a few options as well on how they could do it, just to open their minds to other possibilities.  “You can paint one of what you will miss here, or what you are looking forward to there, or even draw a line down the middle and paint both. If you have another idea, that’s okay too!”

Jack, who is almost six and still in a stage of fantasy immediately picks up yellow.  He is looking forward to a positive fantasy of change.  Even though I see a big smiley face on his page, I ask why he chose yellow.  He states because he is happy.  As he paints and talks, I find out that he is excited about going to a new school and meeting new friends.  He is my extrovert and can make friends quickly on a playground anywhere.  Within minutes he is following a game someone else started, or leads out on his own asking others to join along.  His heart is usually only pricked with the pain of hurt in well established relationships.  When I ask him if he will be missing anything here, he only says he will not miss Bullies.  He had a girl that he didn’t like in class last year and he chose blue because he was happy to be leaving her and an giant red “x” to show “it’s over.”

Aidan’s what a bit more intriguing.  He is older, now coming out of the fantasy stage of development.  He is shifting his focus more towards peers, playing with others, and developing who he is as he relates to peers.  Of course this will peak as he gets into adolescence.  Being that he is also interested in details, he wanted to make a list rather than a picture.  I encouraged him to be creative and do his best to put a picture to his feelings rather than list words.  This was a good challenge to him as he normally pushes down his feelings until something emotionally pricks him hard enough.

He opted for the split page of what he would miss and what he is looking forward to.  When I asked about color choices, he told me he chose blue for the side he would miss.  “When you sing the blues, blue is a good color for sad.”  He then painted his “list” of friends he would be saying good-bye to and wrote “school” under that side as well.  Interesting, he chose the color red for what he was looking forward to.  When I asked him why red (Red usually shows a less positive emotion), he said he thought red was an exciting color.  I wasn’t going to doubt his choice- especially after our turkey sandwich episode, howeverit felt in-congruent to me. Knowing what he would be facing in a move (he has a memory of leaving Colorado and making friends here), “exciting” didn’t seem what he was expressing, even in his voice.  Without making leading statements, I said that many people choose red for other emotions and asked what else he might be feeling.  It was then he came to describe nervousness as a better description.  He was unsure of how he would feel trying to make new friends.  Under that though, he decided to mask over or re-write that feeling that came up by drawing an image of the house he was looking forward to.  Green was certainly a more confident, happy color for him.  Perhaps having a new house that is still our home will bring him great comfort.  Maybe I’ll have Italian bread for him and be ready to make it “his way.”

Finally, here is one of my favorite paintings from a 5 year old client I worked with for a year.  She gave me permission to take a picture of it and keep it. She lost her father tragically and spent a majority of that year coming to terms with him being gone.  Our goal was for her to see him as “with her” but okay with him not physically being here.  After months of angry and sad paintings with red and black and grey reflecting all of them together with sad faces, this was her final picture.  Here she shows her with her siblings and mother all together without him.  Notice how they all have smiles on their faces!  All happy colors and green grass. She is moving to a new house in this picture and her father is right where he needs to be, always with them, but in heaven (he also has a yellow smile that is hard to see).

 

There is nothing like being excited to start a new project to benefit all the other stay-at-home moms of the world and then be completely humbled by the frustration of little people with whom you are about to do awesome stuff with.  Isn’t that how it goes?  I mean come on.  I am riddled with guilt everyday over all the things I could and should be doing with my children, knowing that they will go to their own therapist some day complaining of how I didn’t spend time enough time playing with them,  And then the therapist will look at them with concerning, understanding eyes and ask “What did you mom do for a living?” And they will say I was a therapist.  So the pressure is on, or at least until I let it go.  Today, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that I am human and someday they will accept that too.

So, day one.  I’m pumped about painting with them, but tell the boys we have to have lunch first.  The next thing I know, I am in massive conflict with my nine year old who wants his turkey sandwich just like Subway.  Now, I am all about options.  In fact, that is the first think you should know about play therapy.  You can’t walk in with a complete agenda- there has to be room for creativity.  So I decided to set the atmosphere.

“You can have a sandwich, but anything but PB&J, just for today.”  Well the fight was on.

“Only if it’s a wrap”

“I’m out of wraps.  What if you be creative and make one like Subway?  You can choose your ingredients!”  (Said with great inflection and positivity).

“Can I have it toasted and on Italian bread?”

“Ummmm…. Sure… but I don’t have Italian bread, just my awesome homemade bread.” (Said with less inflection and less positivity).  Here is where it got bad.  My nine year old who is extremely detailed starts to place his Burger King-type of order.  He wants it toasted, with Ranch, but wants the lettuce and Ranch put on after its toasted.  Of course, that can’t be done after the freakin’ cheese has stuck the whole thing together!  “But that’s they way Subway does it!” (He says with great confidence).   I’m beginning to lose it here, cause, geez kid- I’m trying to set the stage for healing and understanding and what I’m getting is a stand off over a turkey sandwich.

At this point, Matt walks in with a sly grin and says, “Glad you’re planning to do some play therapy with them, hun.  Seems like you’ll have plenty to work with.”

We got through lunch with a little bit of compromise for both of us, reminders that we are NOT a Subway kitchen, another lesson in talking back, and a humbled Mom who is reminded that you can try your best but these are different personalities you’re working with.  When you are the parent, you will only get so much from your child.  That’s why a therapist is considered safe and disconnected.  But what I want to arm you with is some tools to take to your play time so you can really listen to your children.  So with that, let’s talk about a few basics.

  1. When you can, give them options on what they would like to play.  Some days they will feel like painting, other days may be a sand day.  (Tomorrow, I will be armed with more choices).
  2. Don’t ask leading questions like, “Doesn’t that make you feel sad?”  Instead, try to use as few words as possible.  Try, “When you think of [that], how does it make you feel inside?
  3. Kids open up more when you aren’t making eye contact.  Playing side by side is less threatening and the brain is not multitasking on 2 things at once.
  4. Sometimes play can be how they are currently feeling and other times can be used to help them think ahead at how they will handle the future- try not to rush them into the latter.
  5. Put your phone in a different room!  This is family time.
  6. If you or the child seems frustrated, or finished… end it.  You may want to paint for 2 hours, but they may be done in 5 minutes and that’s ok.

So, there you go.  I will share with you tomorrow how our first day went.  I also hope to give you resources for each technique in case you want to read further.  Remember, don’t take it too seriously, and don’t read into it too much.  If you get concerned, call someone to help.  As I go along, I want to hear from you on what areas I’m not covering or what you would like to see.  Happy playing!!