How Play Therapy Can Address Anxiety
Even in childhood, there are so many things in life that provoke fear and anxiety. From small stressors like being alone in the dark or not knowing what activity comes next, to major life events and transitions, every child likely experiences some form of anxiety. Although experiencing fear is completely normal, many children do not have the skills to deal with anxiety when it comes up.
Unprocessed fear can lead to many physical and behavioral symptoms, including: excessive energy, stomach aches, difficulty potty training/going to the bathroom, difficulty falling asleep, tantrums, defiance, worrying, asking a lot of questions, impulsivity, clinginess, nightmares, and difficulty with transitions.
Supporting a child who is experiencing a high level of anxiety can be challenging for parents, teachers, and caregivers. But you do not have to do it on your own…play therapy is a great opportunity for support.
One of the reasons emotions can be so difficult and produce such strong reactions is that many children do not really understand them. As adults, we often take this granted—we know which emotion is which and how to identify them—so we assume our children know, too. For children, emotions take practice and guidance to understand.
At the Bridge Center for Play Therapy, we take a very body-based approach. Emotions are essentially energy in the body; each emotion is stored and processed in a specific part of the body. Fear is stored and processed in the stomach and chest, so we aim to increase the child’s awareness of what fear actually feels like in those areas. Then, the next time anxiety manifests, they know what it is.
In addition to energy in the body, fear often manifests through thoughts. If you have ever laid in bed because scary thoughts are running through your head, you know what this is like.Through the play therapy process, we also develop awareness of what thoughts and stories feed into your child’s fear. Once we know what the thoughts are, we can determine how true and/or useful they are, as well as how they are feeding into the way feelings are manifesting in the body. Oftentimes, when brought into the light, these thoughts lose their intensity.
Building awareness has an added benefit of impacting on the internal workings of your child’s nervous system. Without awareness, feeling scared gives a message to the nervous system that there is danger present, resulting in a behavioral response designed to achieve safety, namely fight, flight, or shut down. By building awareness of feelings and sensations in the body, we are helping the nervous system to parse out the anxieties of daily life from those that actually require an escape from danger.
In play therapy, we offer space for the child to show up exactly as they are, feelings and all. Whereas in the classroom or at bedtime there is typically not time or space to be in the child’s fear with them, play therapy is dedicated to this kind of active validation. Through play therapy, we offer the message that each and every child (and parent) is deserving of acceptance exactly as they are; there are no changes that need to be made in order to receive connection.
Meeting your child exactly where they are provides more than just respect and acceptance, it acknowledges that your child knows inherently what they need. The child is the leader in the play therapy process, and we move at the speed that is most beneficial for their individual growth and healing. Tackling anxiety happens one step at a time, and allowing the children to take control of those steps ensures that their nervous system does not become flooded or overwhelmed by their feelings, but instead can experience them in manageable doses.
Finding a New Way
Having permission to feel and explore feelings often creates relief, but that is not a long term solution. Anxiety continues to ebb and flow, often bringing with it behavioral and physical symptoms. The final step is to implement ways to ease distress while the feeling is happening. Ultimately, what this means is regulating the nervous system in response to the feeling.
During the final steps of the play therapy process, the therapist and child are exploring ways to regulate and take care of themselves in the midst of emotional processing. With practice, active regulation can become your child’s automatic response to an emotion. If, at the beginning of this process, your child’s response to anxiety was to shut down and zone out, their new response might be to rock their body and feel their stomach. This shift can create a total transformation in your child’s life, and your family’s life. What we continue to see in our clients as they leave our program is decreased behavioral symptomatology, decreased distress, and a greater ability to handle challenges.
If your child is struggling with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for support. The Bridge Center for Play Therapy is here to guide your family toward greater wellbeing and connection.