Learning how to manage emotions with play therapy

Mental Wellness Wednesday

For kids struggling with some strong emotions or concerning behaviors, play therapy is often the best answer to help them learn how to cope.

“When we start to play with kids, we are now speaking their first language. Play is their first language,” Boys and Girls Home Clinical Therapist Christy Spicer.

“We hadn’t really heard of play therapy before going, we were just hoping to get her into a therapist or someone to help her with her feelings,” Sioux City mom Shelley Hexom said.

Her six-year-old daughter Madeline just finished six weeks of play therapy at the Boys and Girls home.

“We were able to play with her with no distractions around the house, one-on-one play, in a safe place,” Hexom said. “A place where we could recreate some of those things she would struggle with and you know if there was something that we knew was bothering her, maybe through the Barbies we would recreate that scene.”

Spicer said interaction through play can help kids better open up about their feelings.  

“When we give them play as a way to talk about the things that have happened to them or the things they’re experiencing they’re able to communicate that, if we’re listening and then we can be able to help them with that,” Spicer said.

“She told me about what to do when I have bad things with my feelings and she gave me the tools and the right words to do when I have a problem,” six-year-old Madeline Hexom said.

They’re tools Madeline has learned to incorporate in her every day life.

“We made a list of what I should do if I have strong feelings,” she said. “I can give mom and dad a hug, I can go out and swing, I can sit out of something if I want to cool off.”

Some important skills her parents wanted her to learn early on, so she can use and improve them the rest of her life.

“Obviously dealing with feelings is something you need to know how to do for your whole life,” Shelley Hexom said. “We’re all always having different emotions and feelings and we wanted her to learn how to deal with that in a healthy way. That way as she gets older and gets out there on her own, she can grow as a person and be a healthy, strong adult.”

According to mental health and early childhood development research, getting an early start is a very effective strategy.

“With kids, early intervention has been shown to be effective and important,” Spicer said. “So if you see a concern with your child, its much better to seek out some additional assessment even or therapy now and not hope its going to get better, and then at 13 you have a bigger issue then when they were seven or eight.”

Madeline agrees, saying she had a blast at play therapy and is happy to have some new emotional tools in her toolbox.

“I think that it helped me a lot because before I had a lot of struggles, but now I do a lot better because she helped me,” Madeline said.

Parents are also a big part of play therapy and often come away with some great tools of their own to help their kids learn to deal with their feelings in a healthy way.

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