10 Reasons Why I Love Play Therapy

1. Kids are typically more honest than adults.
And not necessarily in the way that leads to insight. If a kid does not want to engage with you, they will let you know. I don’t have to do the guess work of whether they are genuinely getting something out of being in therapy. You will be able to tell. Most of the time, a child hasn’t learned yet how to lie.

2. Kids keep me on my toes.
Historically, I need to mentally prep more when I’m getting ready to have a therapy session with a child. They require constant observation and engagement. If I can be honest, it’s easier for your mind to wander when sitting across from an adult who’s been talking for 15 straight minutes about their problems. There’s no room for that in play therapy. I am all in, every moment I am with the child.

3. Kids are hilarious.
I wish I could compile a book of random, funny things my kid clients have said in session. It would legit become a best seller. Many of the kids I see struggle with appropriate social cues and development. But this makes for some hysterical conversations.

4. Play Therapy is powerful.
Who knew that a simple board game or a tray of sand can be used to express a child’s deepest fears and highest hopes? Simple materials can be transformed into tools to teach kids skills, help them learn emotion management, and exorcise traumatic memories. To an outsider, my office looks like a distraction or a way to introduce the actual treatment, but it IS the treatment for the child. It’s the focus and their language. I love that about Play.

5. My inner child has a regular place to go.
I think implementing Play Therapy helps me personally, too. I can remember part of my childhood being marred by seriousness and trauma. I had to grow up faster than I wanted. Play Therapy allows me to let my hair down and engage in a pure place. I love fostering this place for a child, as well. Not to mention I get to spend hours each week playing on the floor with Play-doh and Barbie dolls.

6. I love teaching parents how to play with their children.
There’s a powerful attachment that takes place when a child plays with a caregiver/adult. It’s actually more effective than moments where a parent implements discipline or instruction. Integral concepts like kindness, fairness, and reciprocity are fostered within the relationship during play. Without the child’s, and often the parent’s, awareness. You want to profoundly impact your child? Get on their level and play with them. I’ve been in moments where you can literally feel the bond between a child and the adult grow stronger, right in front of me in my office. It’s honestly one of my favorite parts of my job.

7. I teach children what to do with power.
This one sounds odd, I’ll admit. One of the reasons children misbehave is to gain power. This is an appropriate desire, because it’s connected to the path towards independence. It’s the adults’ (including teachers, family, counselors, etc. ) jobs to teach a child appropriate use of power and independence through self-control and respect for others. Giving a child age appropriate power is really the only way to teach them this. If you’re always telling a child what to do and never giving them spaces to decide for themselves, you are forcing compliance but not teaching self-control/independence. I like to use nondirective play therapy with my most oppositional kids. While they are used to fighting with adults over control of a time/environment, I give them a healthy amount of control through nondirective play. Meaning they decided what we do with the time in session. Hopefully, nondirective play can help satisfy a need for power little by little. I’ve had parents question this part of my treatment, but it truly is important.

8. Play is fun.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. 🙂

9. It has helped me be a better mommy.
I’ll admit, I use myself and my kids as guinea pigs when conceiving a new play technique. But it’s helpful for me to put myself, as a mom, in my client’s parents’ shoes. This helps me foster more empathy and patience with some of my most frustrated, stubborn parents. Empathy is essential. It’s easy for a play therapist to “blame” the parents for a child’s issues, but empathy helps see things from a family systems perspective. My kids/families teach me lessons on a constant basis and I eat a huge helping of humble pie daily.

10. I am a place a refuge for my kids.
It’s a thought that took a while to get over, but it is now a constant reminder of the important work I do every day. Many of the kids that come to see me for therapy have no other healthy, consistent attachment with another adult. When they sit and play and learn in my office, they are given an opportunity to express whatever they choose, without being forced, criticized, or judged.

There is a script Play Therapists say at the beginning of each session that I typically use:

“This is a safe place for you, and I am your safety person. You can do or say most anything you want while you are here. If you can’t, then I will let you know.”

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Safe Spaces (Thoughts on Being a Therapist)

I still experience brief panic whenever I’m notified that my next client has arrived. You would think that after working for 6 years in the mental health field, I’d more often face a new session with solid optimism and focus. There are times, admittedly not as often as in those earlier days, that I simply want to run away.

Is this the type of therapist that you’d want to see? Be honest. If you knew what went on in your counselor’s mind before, during, and after your sessions, would you feel offended? Would it lessen your desire to come back the following week? If you knew the script of anxiety, self-doubt, and soul sickness that he or she ruminated in their minds on a daily basis, how would it affect how you viewed their skills? I’d assume most of you would feel too squeamish to continue bringing your personal problems to someone like this.

Truthfully, I feel it is this, more than any of my therapeutic skills, that qualifies me to be a therapist. Let me explain….

I spend about 9 hours a day, Monday through Friday, helping others unpack and process the most horrific memories. The most dysfunctional thought and behavioral patterns. I walk people through their traumatic histories and admit their deepest secrets out loud for the first time. I’ve seen people cry in moments of grave despair and from being overwhelmed by relief. I’ve been a stand-in/substitute for people to unload their most narcissistic and down-right cruelest philosophies. I’ve seen my clients possess personal breakthroughs and insights, but also be gripped by irrational and rational fears.

Not a full week of sessions will go by without me identifying with something one (or more) of my clients say or do. I can’t help but see flashes of my face while listening; hearing my own voice serve as a faint echo when they speak. Even in some moments when they say something completely irrational, knowing the context, I secretly agree and will understand their thinking patterns.

It is a very thin line to walk. Crossing it would mean that I lose whatever insight I’ve gained through my own treatment. The torture lies in having to relive my history over and over. Circling back through whatever grief I’ve processed; being reminded of a painful past of which I’ve been able to stop dreaming. I sit in silence after a client leaves my office, and complete a self-check. There are moments when I am blind-sided and can only repeat out loud, “You’re okay. You are okay.”

This isn’t denial. Simply reminding myself of my path. The steps that I’ve taken and the storms that I’ve endured to equip me to be a “healer”. I read in a book once that, historically, therapists were seen as healers. Synchronized with that of a shaman, in some cultures. Meaning, we help others fight against unseen sicknesses. Whatever your point of view regarding therapy, we can all agree that there is no poster child for issues such as depression and anxiety. The sufferer changes faces, races, and ages all the time. Healers are meant to be strategic, compassionate, but also experienced when faced with the plight of these sicknesses.

This is why I feel, in some strange way, thankful that I require a deep breath, a prayer, and a period of quiet before a session. I am thankful for the brief battle that occurs before I go out to the waiting room to greet my clients. There is a shift that needs to happen. There are things that I need to remember. I’m never totally sure what needs my clients will bring with them into session. Many times, they aren’t sure themselves. Which is why that moment of quiet is so necessary. If they need a safe space, then I will clear the room to help them create one.

Have the Conversation: My Thoughts on ’13 Reasons Why’

DISCLAIMER: The following blog discusses the topic of suicide in detail & may be inappropriate for some readers. I encourage the reader to divulge into this topic in the presence of a trusted support person, if needed. The information presented are from limited years of mental health work, culmination of academic study and passion for youth, and my own budding clinical judgment. It is not meant to be a substitute for clinical research.

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My husband and I stumbled upon this show shortly after the buzz began generating on social media. We watched the first episode and expressed mixed feelings: shock over the content, and curiosity of hownthe writers would unfold the remainder of the story. We’re both mental health counselors who work with teenagers/children & felt a mixture of intrigue and dread. When I finished the final episode, I was deeply affected and incredibly sad. Faces of real-life would-be Hannahs, including myself, flashed across my memory. I made a mental check-list of folks I knew were watching to check up on & made a reminder to myself to talk the show over with my supervisor and colleagues. I gathered that whatever conclusions I would make about this show, I was responsible for what I did next.

’13 Reasons Why’ is probably one of the most successful shows Netflix has created in a long time, as far as viewership. But many parents and mental health professionals feel that the program is dangerous and irresponsible. As a mom I share in their caution. It is deeply upsetting to watch a beautiful, smart young girl  carry out a detailed plan to end her life. Secondly, it is normal for adult viewers to become disgusted and disturbed. However, after further processing, I felt the need to look at the popular program from a different angle.

Let’s walk through the criticisms I’ve heard about ’13 Reasons Why’:

  1. The show glorifies and/or oversimplifies suicide.

I must start off by stating that this program is rated TV-MA. Which means that it contains very disturbing material. The drama given to the storyline provided a necessary entertainment element, but I feel Hannah’s suicide, itself, was handled very openly.

Secondly, this isn’t the first time the topic of suicide was portrayed on television/movies.

Image-1Side note: If given the time, I can critique the above movies for their handling of the topic of suicide, but the fact still remains that many will still keep their acclaim. We ultimately  settle on the fact that the writers/directors have an artistic license to portray a topic and leave it in the hands of the consumer to view & digest responsibly.

To some critics, the writers portray suicide as a viable option – one both tragic and simple. Some say that the writers made suicide look easy to accomplish. I would have agreed with this criticism, if this wasn’t close to the train of thought held by many (not “all”) people who are suicidal. They may have moments of seeing death as easier, more peaceful, and better overall. They may feel it will ultimately ease suffering. It isn’t the NOT DYING part that’s difficult for a suicidal person, it’s LIVING that’s often too hard. If anything, the writers attempted to show how intently a person will pursue a suicidal plan if gotten to that point.

There is always hope, I sincerely believe, but because Hannah suffered very much alone, she had no one to help her grasp on to that hope. The tragedy behind Hannah’s fight with suicide is that it did not resolve her problems, ultimately.

The only critique I do have concerning this is that actually many who are suicidal have a methodical period but end up acting impulsively towards the end in order to complete suicide. Meaning, a suicide note is not commonplace (which Hannah’s tapes are considered akin to a suicide note.) The writers do portray Hannah to have been much more methodical than is realistic. However, this isn’t to say that some sufferers do not focus intently on escaping their pain and carry out a plan.

Other critics say that Hannah’s high school setting was overdramatized. It would be a mistake to believe that sexual assault, bullying, and harassment aren’t prevalent issues for our youth. Also, some feel that teens may over identify with Hannah. I say there may be more Hannahs than we are aware.

  1. It is an extended revenge fantasy; blaming those who mistreated Hannah for her death.

I’m often blown away at how much humans lack common courtesy and kindness towards one another. It shouldn’t take a television show to magnify this fact. However, the common culture among youth is fueled by bullying, scandal, and violence. For my adult readers, we all remember how tumultuous our teen years were…any mental health issues aside.

I’m constantly reminded how important it is to extend kindness to the next person, because what I do can deeply affect him/her. To deny the fact that her peers, family members, and school were partially responsible dances dangerously on the line of victim shaming. It places their pain center stage without taking into account the millions of interactions that led them to having suicidal thoughts.

Suicide has always been an “us” issue. Let me be clear, her classmates were not the CAUSE of her suicide, but did play a ROLE in her mental illness. We are all connected and responsible for one another. Hannah felt abandoned & mistreated by those around her. It’s not sound logic, we understand, but it doesn’t make it a fantasy. Rather than focusing on how intently Hannah unjustly sought revenge, let’s take a preventive stance by teaching our children how to treat one another.

  1. It encourages struggling students to not go to their guidance counselors/reach out for help.

This critique hit me hardest, considering I’m a counselor myself. Hannah’s guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, is completely unhelpful and distracted towards her. In Hannah’s tapes, she openly states that no one cared about her. Critics said that the show unjustly encourages Survivor Guilt. Here’s my take-away: Survivor Guilt will occur, regardless of the quality of relationships of those who remain after someone dies.

Also, the sinking feeling I was left with after witnessing Mr. Porter’s behavior was sobering. And I used it properly. It reminded me of my responsibility as an advocate. Simply put, if I am truly present on my job, then I can be a proper channel for change. Many of our counselors (especially school-based ones) are often burned out and overworked, distracted by test scores and administrative responsibilities.

But this actually segues into an even bigger conversation…which we won’t get into today.

To me, the most dangerous thing about the depiction of violence is not that our kids are watching violent content (and might be encouraged to reenact said violent content), but that even after hearing of teenagers struggling and dying, we still put the responsibility on entities that are not actually attached to our homes, classrooms, churches, and communities.

It has never been the responsibility of entertainment venues to educate or heal our children. Allowing them to consume without seeking them out to process afterwards is more irresponsible than the show being created in the first place. Much more. Entertainment is a good access point leading to the discussion, but they were never meant to BECOME the discussion.

  1. It will trigger those already struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression.

I had a friend who took to her FB status to ask others whether she should watch the show. I, more or less, replied, “Not alone.”. I would hope that those who are already getting treated for their depression will have the insight to stay away from watching, or at least be cautioned by a loved one or counselor to do so.

The population I feel the most concerned for are those who are without support and are struggling silently with depression and suicidal thoughts. However, I would still look towards those who are already called out to be the supporters/advocates; our teachers, counselors, pastors and family members. The girl scout leader and the mentor. Bus driver and the babysitter.

We are the “Village” that the quote “It takes a Village” speaks of. It is us that should be raising and safeguarding our children. The show presents a very real & important topic. One that our teens are faced with everyday; the hallways of their schools and text threads already contain the topics we shudder about. It’s our conversations with them after the last episode ends that will better determine their interpretation.

Important to note is that there is a 30 minute interview-style documentary on the hit series on Netflix, called ‘13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons‘, which contains more context and discussion about the content in the show from it’s actors, crew, and mental health professionals.

I also encourage anyone who knows a young person to arm yourself with knowledge on the topic of suicide, because this will be needed, even after the fame of this show ends. Here’s an amazing document I found on the SAVE/JED Foundation’s webpage (www.save.org) , outlining 13 Talking Points when watching the show with a teenager.

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Use it to start a conversation; one that someone you know may be afraid to have. If we can remove the taboo nature from suicide, then we might just become the right safe spaces for someone to take their first step towards desiring life.

#takingbackpostpartum (part one)

About 5 weeks ago, I gave birth to my son, Noah Michael George. I spent the first few days in awe that God allowed us to have a quiet, uneventful pregnancy & a quick 2 hour labor. My husband and I sat in the hospital room just hours after he was born, anxious to get home with our family.

When my son turned a week old, a dark cloud settled over our home as we struggled through the onset of what turned out to be silent reflux & severe colic that plagues many newborns. Noah screamed all day & night. My mom had gone home by this point and my husband was back at work. We stayed up nights and he rarely napped during the day. I was angry, resentful, and lonely. I actively fought off depression, having been acquainted with the symptoms, but was unable to keep the tears to a minimum. It was a struggle to feed him even though I had an oversupply & was conquering engorgement. The way we’d described him in those days would be “cranky”, “high maintenance”, & “needy”. He hated everything it felt like…and I was not bonding with my son.

I missed spending time with my 2 year old daughter (who was a much easier, more pleasant baby) & I felt myself mourning it just being the three of us. Luckily, my marriage survived this period. I cried in my husband’s arms more time than I can count, but I could see how hard he was working to keep our family afloat.

The turning point for me happened when Noah turned 3 weeks old. My mother-in-law was here to spend a week with us & she, my daughter & husband had left that morning for church. After feeding Noah in the living room, I turned on the tv to catch a local church’s worship service. One of the songs they sang was “It is Well with My Soul”.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well, with my soul

It is well

With my soul

It is well, it is well with my soul

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul

It is well (it is well)

With my soul (with my soul)

It is well, it is well with my soul

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul

It is well (it is well)

With my soul (with my soul)

It is well, it is well with my soul

It is well (it is well)

With my soul (with my soul)

It is well, it is well with my soul

With my son sleeping in my lap, I lifted my hands in worship and wept cleansing tears to my Heavenly Father. The lyrics reverberated deeply in my soul & I felt His presence wash over me.

Things are still hard. However, His grace and strength is more than enough. I’m becoming more acquainted, in this season, with God being my Daily Bread. He gives us exactly what we need, daily.