April 12 2019
Play therapy: Helping babies, toddlers and young children heal from trauma
Do you suspect that your baby, toddler or very young child has undergone a traumatic experience? You want to help them get through it, but what if they’re too young to talk about it—or too young to even understand what happened?
A trauma occurs when a child feels intensely threatened, scared or shaken up by an event that happens to the child or to a loved one, while experiencing feelings of helplessness and loss of control. Whether it’s an emotional trauma or psychological trauma (ex: losing a loved one) or a physical trauma (ex: physical abuse), the event creates stress and erodes the child’s sense of stability. Reactions to trauma interfere with daily life, impact the ability to function and affect interactions with others. These traumatic experiences can produce physical, psychological and emotional reactions that last a lifetime.
When helping a young child process trauma, be aware of their level of understanding and their grasp of language (or lack thereof). For instance, if you’ve lost a loved one, realize that young children may not yet comprehend the concept of death. (To help your child cope with the death of a loved one, click here). Your child is unique and you know them best; assess what will make sense to them. Be mindful of their developmental stage and be sensitive to their needs. During the delicate time following a traumatic event, you’ll want to be careful not to confuse them (or re-traumatize them) with complex or graphic explanations.
In order to work through their trauma and begin the healing process, babies and young children require an atmosphere of safety and stability. This includes an emotionally consistent parent or caretaker. Your child needs to believe that, no matter what, you will be there for them.
Play therapy is a great way to develop that crucial sense of stability. (Don’t be intimidated by the word “therapy”; you can do this at home!) “When children are able to express themselves through play in a safe, enriched family environment early in life, it may help them improve their mental health,” explains Teresa Ngigi, mental health and psychological and social support advisor for SOS Children’s Villages.
What types of play should you engage in with your child?
Select games in which your child actively participates. The play should strengthen your bond, build trust and make your child feel safe with you.
The perfect example of this type of game is the simple act of playing catch with a ball. A surprising amount of communication happens in this game, both in what you learn about your child and in what they learn about you. From your end, you can sense if your child is preoccupied or not present in the moment. This could indicate that they are still affected by the traumatic event. If you suspect this may be the case, use this opportunity to reaffirm your love and patience. Your child needs to know that you’ll always be there to nurture them.
From your child’s end, they learn about how invested you are—or aren’t—in spending quality time with them. As a parent, your child should find you predictable. (That’s a good thing!) To a baby or very young child, predictability is security. By throwing the ball back to your child, you’re doing exactly what they expect you to do. It communicates that you’re consistent and present. Let your child feel that you want to be with them. Even if they’re too young to understand language, they comprehend your positive feedback. (Sorry, parents; this means you should put down your phone or other gadgets. Even babies can sense this lack of attention, which could lead to isolation or fear, or intensify their trauma.)
If you’re present with your child and actively engaging in play therapy, you might end up enjoying more than the game itself; you might find that you’re actually building a healthy foundation for love, healing and trust.
Trauma therapy experts
Every day, SOS Children’s Villages helps children overcome the trauma they’ve experienced prior to being in our care, including the loss of their parents and families. We offer mental health programs and services to children, families and communities, and we train SOS mothers and caregivers to provide critical help to children who may have been exposed to traumatic experiences. We also empower children to cope with their anguish through specialized trauma recovery techniques and psychological support from SOS experts in child care and mental health. For instance, in war-torn Syria, our Child Friendly Spaces provide children who have been exposed to traumatic events with psychosocial support and active learning through play and recreational activities, with a focus on enhancing children’s self-esteem and nurturing friendships and social connection. With seven decades of experience, SOS Children’s Villages works in 135 countries to ensure that all children in our programs receive appropriate care, stimulation and support to overcome traumas from their past—and build resilience and post-traumatic growth.