OPINION: Why barbies are better than a $200/hr therapist

There is a class of therapeutic techniques that psychologists and counselors refer to as “play therapy”.

The basic idea is that children’s language skills and meta-cognitive abilities are not developed enough for them to talk about experiences that are troubling them or that they are otherwise still attempting to process.

Like, I guess I could just ask my daughter:

 “Honey, did anything happen to you today at school that you are still processing?
Did you do a good job avoiding co-dependent behaviors with your friends?
Did you ask them to respect your boundaries?”

I could ask that…but I’m sure I would be met with a blank stare.

So what are my options? I can ask her Pre-school teachers about her day. I could ask her about her day. Those are good ideas. I already do that. Honestly, they don’t yield that much information. Not the information that I REALLY want to know.

 The teachers tend to focus first and foremost on their authoritarian relationship with her. In other words, they tell me whether she is “minding” them or not. If I ask about her relationship with other children, they will tell me whether or not she cooperates. They’ve told me she likes to lead and when things don’t go her way, she gets frustrated and refuses to play. That’s helpful, and we are working on that. But what I know deeply is that the teachers will never have the time to really study Leah on an ongoing basis and make sure she is on track psychologically.

That’s my job.

And so I do “Play Therapy” with Leah. Just like the Psychologists who are members of the Association for Play Therapy, I give her some toys and I observe. If I see an area of concern I can either drop character and talk about it with her — human-to-human — or I can try to do my “Play Counseling” using the dolls.

Here’s an example of how we recently used a combination of Human-to-Human counseling as well as Play Counseling to help Leah with a problem at school:

Leah was at recess at her pre-school when her two best friends decided to play with each other and leave Leah out.

Leah told me about the incident in the car on the way home that day. I suggested a strategy for how she could handle things if it happened again.  I told her that Daddy and I have always believed that when it comes to play time, “The more the merrier.”

A few hours later we were playing barbies and I decided to see if she remembered what we had discussed. I am almost always tasked with playing a multitude of characters and on that day I had two girls and Leah had her favorite doll Bella.

We were playing along when I decided to have my two characters conspire to leave Leah’s Bella out of the fun.

“Let’s not play with Bella today. We should just play me and you.” Leah’s face immediately looked strained but then her eyes met mine and she understood that we were practicing. Leah acted out the plan we’d discussed by having Bella find someone else to play with. I then followed suit by having Keyonce and Kayla show interest in Bella’s new activity and ask Bella if they too could join in her new game. Leah looked pleased. I was impressed.

Then, it occured to me that Leah had another quick lesson to learn. I had Keyonce approach Bella and suggest that they conspire to leave Kayla out. This would test whether Leah understood that it was wrong to leave people out, even if she wasn’t the one being ostracized.

 “Let’s me and you play alone.” I had Keyonce whisper to Leah’s Bella,  “Let’s tell Kayla we don’t want to play with her!” There was a dramatic pause while I waited to see if Leah had inherited my compassion and empathy.

“Okay!” Leah had Bella say.

I dropped character, “Leah!?!” 

 Leah looked at me, unabashed.

“Okay,” I said with a hint of vengeance in my voice, and re-entered my Kayla character.  I had Kayla sit at the edge of the playground and begin to sob. Then I whispered to Leah, “Bella should tell Keyonce that she doesn’t like to leave people out because it hurts their feelings and there is no reason why three people can’t play together just as easy as two can.”

We repeated the scenario three or four times, with different characters suggesting the conspiracy, rejecting the conspiracy, having their feelings hurt, choosing not to be hurt, etc until I was confident that Leah knew what I expected of her in such a situation.

A week later, I checked back in with Leah. How are things going? Are X and Y still leaving you out?

“I don’t play with them anymore,” Leah said, “They always do that thing where they try to leave girls out so I just play with Cherise and Maggie now.”

“And do Cherise and Maggie leave people out?” I asked.

“No,” Leah said, “We play more Marys”

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Leah is so lucky to have you! I must say I got a kick out of her saying “Ok” to leaving the other doll out. Shows she’s human.

  2. Ms. Leo says:

    The hardest thing to teach children is making good friends. That one skill can save you a lifetime of all kinds of hurt! Even as adults, many try so hard to be accepted at any price. You are teaching her well! I just loved the “We play more Marys”. Too cute!

    1. Ms. Leo – that is so true and I hate to say it but girls are conniving – they are really vicious in the way they are constantly forming cliques and coteries!! I hope to help her deal with this fact of life without becoming ring-leader or the one left out. I was a total pushover and pleaser so I hope to teach her some of the things I have learned the hard way.

  3. Btw- Leah has a clear issue with Asians right now. This is because at her old school there was a little Asian girl named Emily who had a very strong personality and really ran things. The very human knee-jerk for Leah was to equate Emily’s looks with her personality (a survival technique) and decide Asians are evil. Unfortunately her current school has NO ASIANS – so we are working thorugh it with the dolls. Luckily her school in the Fall has a ton of Asians and so I suspect things will work out fine. She’s going to be doing Mandarin immersion for Kindergarten.

    1. Gayla Ignacio says:

      As a play therapist, I appreciate your tips on how to make different hair types. I would also like to let you know that any professional play therapist would be hesitant, if not unwilling, to see a well-adjusted child for the troubling, everyday activities every child faces. Traumatized child, on the other hand, need safe and specially trained adults, who can help them through coping with the pain of physical and sexual abuse, watching a parent die in an auto accident, or other tremendous situations. Therapy is not just play. It is therapy using the language children. Just as you can listen to and comfort a struggling adult friend using words (adult language), you can do the same with your child with toys. Great job in recognizing that and doing it for your child. Too bad more kids don’t have moms like you. However, from reading your posts, you seem wise enough that if you had an adult friend who was brutal beaten, raped and left for dead, you would seek professional help for her, or at least encourage her to do so. You wouldn’t try to be er therapist. It is the same with a child. Children who see play therapists aren’t as fortunate as your child. And therapy with them is more about who put their penis where, rather than who left who standing alone on the playground.

      1. thanks so much for your input. You’re right about a traumatic event – victims should always benefit from the care of a trained therapist. Of course I was being tongue-in-cheek and I can tell you understood that. I have a lot of respect for you, working as a play therapist bc you have fragile and injured children in your care.

        1. Gayla Ignacio says:

          Thank you for your kind and generous reply. I enjoy your ideas and am already using some of them. =)

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