Theraplay for Children with Problems in Emotional and Behavioral Regulation
by Suzanne Getz Gregg, PhD, LPC, RPT/S, Virginia Beach
As play therapists, we are well-trained to invite, facilitate, and respond to the child’s symbolic representation of personal experience through play. We are well-versed in methods designed to help understand and decode the processes of exploration and mastery via meaningful play themes. But where do we turn when the child, regardless of age, reverts to infantile dysregulation and cannot employ the play-based items we offer? Fortunately for us, Phyllis Booth has been teaching and training in Theraplay techniques for several decades now. On Friday, January 18th, we warmly welcomed her back to the winter seminar series of the Virginia Association for Play Therapy. Her skills in entering into and modifying the young child’s stance across sensory and motor channels are paramount.
The earlier the developmental wound or challenge, the less verbally-mediated it is. When harsh early experiences result in mistrust, shame, and insecurity, the child develops a view of self-world-other that is negative and disorganized. Without effectively soothing interactions, he or she becomes easily dysregulated. It follows, then, that corrective developmental experiences should be primarily body-based in origin to best effect change. By giving dozens of demonstrations, Phyllis showed how learning, or relearning, the foundations of healthy relatedness results in self-regulation, secure attachment, and self-worth. Parents typically serve as the agents of change, with therapists advising and coaching them in the process. For a child to learn to relax and let trustworthy others take charge, parents need to be directive. This stands in contrast to our traditional methods of non-directive play therapy, which are more suitable at older ages.
At root, then, is the core dilemma of how to direct a child who disengages and refuses to participate, or over-reaches in attempts to over-control the interaction. Both are avoidance tactics, meant to evade the elemental give-and-take of dyadic relationships. Priceless video clips captured the essence of Phyllis’s delightfully playful and attuned style. By voice, by touch, by smile, she demonstrated how to draw a child in by exclaiming over the wonder of who they are. As parents explore how to address the essence rather than the behavior of a child, they help promote recovery from the deep wounds of feeling unwanted, unsafe, unloved.
We learned how tug-of-war naturally reengages the child’s push-pull in a dyad without triggering protest. How a shake of powder in the hand lets an adult trace the lines in a child’s palm in an effort to reestablish safe touch. How using the child’s feet to cover our eyes in a game of peek-a-boo lets the child recline without an awareness of giving in. How the joy of pushing over an adult is linked with pulling them back up, making the relationship bidirectional, as is desired. How an adult leading a rousing rendition of Row Your Boat can vary the rhythm, thus by default the child learns to conform and gradually rewires a patterned sense of regulation. Though the child is unaware of being led, through these and dozens of other exercises, his or her relief in letting go into the joy of true connection is sweetly apparent at every turn. Thank you, Phyllis, for lighting the way for us to follow, on behalf of all the children we serve!