Could your child benefit from counseling?

There are a variety of reasons why parents seek counseling for their children. Often, I am asked how to determine when a parent should seek support, or when another professional should recommend Play Therapy services. Honestly, the “when” part of the equation is entirely up to the family and is often dependent on the level of distress and symptomology the family can handle on their own. I can, however, give you a little more insight into the “why.”

The following reasons are the most prevalent prerequisites I tend to see in my play therapy practice.

Difficulty Processing Emotions

Emotions are HARD! Largely, that is because the human body does not innately know how to process emotions. Emotional processing is a learned skills; however, there are very few environments that teach children (or anybody for that matter) how to do it! Because the skills are not in place, children move through their world attempting to sort through a variety of experiences that make very little sense to them. As you can imagine, this is not a very effective way to process emotions and therefore many emotions are left unprocessed or under-processed.

In addition, emotions can be incredibly distressing. As an adult who works in the field of emotional wellbeing and mental health, even I find emotions challenging some days. The reality is that many of us have at least one emotion that feels harder to deal with than the others and because it overwhelms our systems, it does not get appropriately processed. The result of built up emotions are physical and behavioral symptoms.

In play therapy, working with children to begin processing emotions means starting from square one. They have to first learn to identify emotions in their body, in their thoughts, and in the way they impact their actions. With all of this information missing, emotions become much bigger and scarier than they are for well-practiced adults. If your child seems to be particularly mad, sad, or scared in their daily life, that may be an indication that the emotion you are seeing is not being processed. Other indicators include acting out behaviors, overly complicit behaviors, very high or very low energy, mood swings, difficulty with certain aspects of life — such as drop offs or transitions, or any signs of distress. The good news is that by targeting the underlying emotions and providing support around emotional processing, we can also minimize the distress and the symptoms.

Major Life Transitions

Just like adults, children struggle with adjusting to transitions and settling into a new routine. There are a variety of transitions that create challenges for children and families, including:

  • Divorce

  • Birth or adoption of a sibling

  • A move

  • Transition into a new school

  • Transition into or out of the school year

  • Change in teaching staff

  • Loss of a loved one

  • Loss of a family pet

  • Change in parenting plan/custody

  • Medical challenges in the family

  • Re-marriage of parents, change in family structure

Changes like these can come with a lot of feelings, and subsequently physical and behavioral symptoms. Counseling is a great place for your child to safely explore and express those feelings and improve emotional processing. Oftentimes, parents are experiencing a transition alongside the child; this can mean that support from a parent is spread thin or that the parent may be needing their own emotional support.

Ultimately, letting go of the “old” way is a process; support can be extremely beneficial and can prepare the child for a healthier and more resourced approach to future transitions.

Relational Challenges

Relationship and connection are essential human needs, but they are not always easily achieved. Childhood, especially as children grow older, can be filled with social difficulties including, but not limited to, bullying, being bullied, sharing friends and toys, navigating relationships, and building new relationships. In addition, the parent-child dynamic is continually growing and shifting as the child moves from being dependent on his or her parents to becoming more independent.

Relational skills are highly dependent on what else is happening in the life and experience of the child. For instance, emotional challenges can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to connect to other people. When emotions are particularly distressing, they impact the entire system. Often, the brain and nervous system are so overwhelmed with what is happening internally that there is very little energy and attention left to give externally.

The symptoms and behaviors that come with heightened emotional states can also negatively impact relationships and can be hardest on the parents. Often, when a child is acting out repeatedly, having meltdowns, or refusing to listen (etc), the parent is also going to have an emotional experience—whether that may be frustration about having to spend precious time and energy dealing with a reaction that feels completely out of proportion to the incident, fear around their child displaying such high levels of distress and what they might mean, or just a desire to shutdown and not deal with it! When the child and the parent are experiencing high levels of emotion simultaneously, the possibility for connection decreases even more because now both of their brains are functioning from a place of crisis and distress. This game of emotional ping-pong can wear on the relationship over time.

Through counseling, the parent is offered a reprieve to take care of themselves and let the needs of the child be met by the counselor. In addition, the counselor may provide some emotional processing support and skills to the parent in anticipation of those overwhelming conflicts that are bound to arise. To support the child, play therapy allows space for emotional processing so that the constant level of distress is not as high. From there, the child will begin to learn and practice skills for how to handle challenging emotions when they arise. Ultimately, when the child is able to maintain a relationship with him or herself, even in the face of difficult emotions or experiences, they will also be able to maintain relationships with others. The support of the play therapist is key in practicing and assessing the child’s ability to connect to others.

Improving Self-Concept & Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem is one of the issues I see most often, and the impact can be devastating on a child’s life. Without a foundation of self-esteem, children are less likely to follow their passions, speak up for themselves, and take initiative. Children with low self-esteem also have greater difficulty making friends, because they aren't comfortable putting themselves out there due to fear of being rejected.

Through the play therapy process, children first develop awareness about who they are. They get to develop their self-concept and really start to explore their likes and dislikes, how they respond to situations, and how they relate to others. Unlike many other relationships the child may be experiencing, there is a complete level of authenticity in the play room. This means that children will never be told that who they are is not quite right. Instead, the play therapist will model authentic expression and complete self-acceptance. The child, in addition, is offered that same level of acceptance and will receive the message they are beautiful, complete, and amazing exactly as they are.

As the play therapy process continues, the child gets multiple opportunities to practice self-trust. They get to try on new strategies with no repercussions, make congruent decisions, and show up as authentically as possible. It is through this repetitive process that self-esteem is built and once it is present in the play therapy process, it will begin to emerge in the outside world and throughout more challenging situations, further strengthening the child’s ability to know and feel proud of who they are.

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