Developing a Healthy Sex Life After Sexual Abuse/Assault – Part 2

Developing a Healthy Sex Life After Sexual Abuse/Assault – Part 2

This article talks about some skills and strategies to heal the traumatized part of your brain and move toward the intimacy you deserve. If you missed the last article about the ways that sexual abuse/assault impacts intimacy and sexuality, I’d recommend going back and reading that article before beginning this one.

Remedies

Every nervous system is a little different. What works for one person may not work for another. There are many options for healing trauma and developing a healthy intimate and sex life, so I encourage you to choose options that resonate best with you.

Shift Ideas about Sex

A good place to start might be with the ideas you and your partner(s) hold about sex. Often survivors of sexual assault hold negative beliefs about sex. These beliefs result from parts of our brains confusing sexual assault (violence) with sex (consent, pleasure, equality). The two are not the same, and we need to rewire our brains to reflect this. I recommend having a look at Wendy Maltz’s comparisons chart here https://healthysex.com/healthy-sexuality/part-one-understanding/comparisons-chart/. This will help explain the difference between ideas about sex that come from experiences of abuse, versus healthy ideas about sex.

You can continue to develop a healthy sexual mindset by avoiding media that portrays sexual assault or sex as abuse or talking about sexual attitudes with friends or with a therapist. You can also educate yourself about sexuality and healing through books and workshops. One book I strongly recommend is Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski.

Communication with Partners

This may be the most important recommendation in this article. You cannot have consensual sex without communicating about it. That’s true for anyone, whether they’re an assault survivor or not. Sex remains a taboo subject in our culture, even though sex is very normal and most people have some form of sex at some point in their lives. When things are taboo and not widely talked about and understood, people develop feelings of shame about the taboo subject. Shame lurks in the darkness. This feeling of shame or embarrassment or even just awkwardness keeps many people from talking about sex with their partners despite engaging in sex.

  1. Consent is dynamic: It can be given and withdrawn at any time

All people, and especially survivors of assault/abuse need to be able to give and withdraw consent AT ANY TIME during a sexual or intimate act. Many survivors will experience flashbacks or triggers at various times through physical or sexual activities. Because they don’t feel safe to tell their partner to stop (often out of fear for making them feel bad), they will instead dissociate and push through the sexual experience. When you do this, you are telling your brain and body that what you feel doesn’t matter and that the other person’s pleasure or comfort is more important.

While it may feel frustrating to have to stop mid-sex or mid-kiss or mid-hug because something has triggered you, listening to your body will actually help the healing process go much faster. Each time you override what your brain and body needs, the trauma gets reinforced and the triggers continue to come back. Slower is faster when healing from trauma. This is something partners need to understand. If a survivor is saying no, it’s because they trust you enough to say no, not because they’re not attracted to you. Every “no” is sexy because it’s getting you closer to an enthusiastic, consensual “yes”

  1. Understand and Communicate your preferences

In addition to understanding and respecting the need to withdraw consent at any time, it’s important to talk about sexual preferences. What feels good, what feels neutral and what doesn’t feel good. Communicate when something felt uncomfortable and explore together to find what does feel comfortable. When sex is approached with curiosity and exploration rather than rigidness and shame, it becomes increasingly safe and pleasurable for both parties.

  1. The need to take a break

Sometimes survivors of sexual abuse and assault may need to take a prolonged break from sexual activity. This can happen when the individual is in a relationship or not. The break allows space to focus on healing and figuring out what feels good and what doesn’t without worrying about the anxiety of managing their partner’s advances. When you are ready to engage in sexual activity again, do so when you want it, not when you believe you “should.” You have a right to be an active participant in your own sex life. Communicate your likes and dislikes and give yourself permission to say no at any time.

How to Manage Triggers and Flashbacks

As mentioned above, some survivors will experience triggers or flashbacks during physical touch or sexual activity. Flashbacks and triggers are often thought of as images of the traumatic experience. But they can also be experienced as unpleasant sensations, or a lack of sensation, an experience of disconnection, or an experience of overwhelm. When this happens it’s important to stop whatever is triggering the flashback, i.e. stopping the sexual activity or the physical touch. When you have a flashback, a part of your brain thinks it is in the past when the trauma happened, You need to remind that part of your brain that you are in the present moment and that the danger has passed. Another word for this is “grounding.”

Grounding Strategies/Orienting back to the present moment

  • 5,4,3,2,1
    • Name 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, 1 you can taste
  • Deep breaths
    • Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8 (or any variation of that where you breathe out longer than you breathe in
  • Box breaths: in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4 (repeat 4 times)
  • Stand up and move your body – get the adrenaline out
    • Run on the spot, go for a walk, jumping jacks
  • Watch youtube video that makes you laugh (laughter is grounding)
  • Play a categories game
  • Say the alphabet backwards
  • Show these strategies to your partner and do them together

Once you’ve successfully grounded (and give yourself as much time as your nervous system needs for this, remember slower is faster), take some time to rest and find comforts. Your nervous system has just gone through a lot. It can also be good to think about what triggered you and to discuss with you partner how to change that in the future. You may want the help of a counsellor to determine this.

Counselling

Trauma counselling can really help you to overcome the impacts the trauma has on your life. You may also want to incorporate some couples counselling to help improve communication so that the two of you can work as a team on this.

There are 3 types of trauma counselling that can be beneficial. You may benefit from a mix of all three.

  1. Top-Down counselling:

This type of counselling helps you to change the thought patterns and behavioural habits that have formed as a result of the trauma. You will learn to notice the emotions and to change the behaviours and thoughts that tend to come as a result of the emotions. Some examples of this include CBT and DBT.

  1. Bottom-Up Counselling:

Emotions and survival responses are physiological. You may notice a tightness in your chest when you feel anxious, a lump in your throat when you feel sad, a pit in your stomach when you feel embarrassed, or any variety of physical manifestations of emotions. When we feel an emotion our bodies are automatically mobilized to do something with it. For example, if you see a grizzly bear, your body might instinctively run or freeze or even try to fight it. You don’t even have to think about it, your brain does it automatically! Your body also knows how to heal from the trauma, but often circumstances prevent us from being able to allow our bodies to do what they need to do. Bottom-up counselling approaches such as EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, or Somatic Experiencing can help you to process the trauma by mindfully allowing your body and brain to do what it needs to do to heal. This will also greatly improve your relationship to your body

  1. Mindfulness Counselling or Practices

Through mindfulness practices you can train your nervous system (brain and body) to become fully present. You learn to notice when triggers are happening while keeping a foot in the present-moment so that you don’t become overwhelmed. With mindfulness you can learn to allow emotions to come and go naturally without being swept away. If you’d like to start mindfulness on your own I’d recommend starting with short 2 minute practices and slowly working your way up. Examples of mindfulness-based counselling include Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

I hope these tidbits can help you get started, or to continue on your healing journey. You deserve a healthy intimate life that includes boundaries, consent, pleasure and joy. Slower is faster; trauma takes time to work through, but it is very treatable, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Sources

Maltz, Wendy (2021). Healthy Sex: Promoting Healthy, Loving Sex and Intimacy. https://healthysex.com/

Nagoski, Emily (2015). Come as you Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform your Sex Life. Simon & Schuster Inc: New York.

University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (2019). Sexual intimacy after sexual assault or sexual abuse. https://www.ualberta.ca/media-library/ualberta/current-students/sexual-assault-centre/pdf-resources-and-handouts/intimacy-after-sexual-assault-2019.pdf

Developing a Healthy Sex Life After Sexual Abuse/Assault – Part 1

Developing a Healthy Sex Life After Sexual Abuse/Assault – Part 1

Note: This article speaks in broad terms about sexual assault and abuse. If you feel overwhelmed at any point reading this article, I encourage you to stop reading (or skip to the section on “grounding”) and allow your body to do what it needs to do to come back to the present. Whether it’s going for a brisk walk, doing some deep breathing, or calling a trusted friend. As this article will discuss, there’s no need to push yourself past the point of overwhelm. Healing can only take place with patience.

Many survivors of sexual assault face difficulties with intimacy and/or sexuality at some point in their lives. While this is a very common experience, it’s certainly not the case for all survivors. Traumatic events affect people in a variety of different ways dependent on each person’s life experiences and their unique nervous systems. This article will focus on the people who do struggle with sex and intimacy after traumatic events. It will show that even though it can feel really hopeless at times, there are some amazing ways forward to achieving a healthy and satisfying sex life. We have some powerful innate abilities to heal trauma, but it often takes patience, support and work to get there.

Understanding the Impacts

Sexuality and the Central Nervous System – Stress and Love

Sexuality is impacted by the emotional systems managed by a very primal part of your brain often called “the reptilian brain.” This part of your brain is responsible for stress feelings as well as love feelings, all of which have helped us to survive as a species. Stress and love are also the main emotions that impact intimacy and sexual desire.

Stress responses are the neurobiological processes that help you deal with threats. Your brain prioritizes one of the following three main components based on survival needs: fight (anger/frustration), flight (fear/anxiety), or collapse (numbness, depression, dissociation).

Love is also a survival strategy; it’s the neurobiological process that pulls us closer to our tribes and bonds humans together. Love is responsible for passion, romance, and joy. It’s also responsible for the agony of grief and heartbreak.

Common Reactions

When a person lives through a traumatic event, the stress response in their central nervous system (brain and body) often gets locked into survival mode. It has detected that there is danger and so it learns that it must always be scanning for any sign of danger. As a result, there are two very common reactions to sexual trauma that affect a survivor’s sex life.

  1. Sexual Avoidance/Difficulty Experiencing Pleasure

The main function of the central nervous system is to prioritize survival needs in order of importance. For example, if you can’t breathe, you’re unlikely to notice that you’re hungry until you get oxygen again. Similarly, although love is indeed a survival mechanism (bringing us together with our tribes), the brain tends to prioritize attention to stress over love because stress points to a more immediate threat: the possibility of another dangerous and violent act.

After a sexual assault, sensations, contexts and ideas that used to be interpreted as sexually relevant (like physical touch) may instead now be interpreted by your brain as threats. So sexual situations actually make your brain sound the “danger” alarm bell. Our central nervous systems confuse sex (an act of consent, equality and pleasure) with sexual assault (an act of violence and power over another). Remember, your nervous system’s primary function is to keep you alive and safe, so anything that feels in any way similar to a violent situation from the past will sound your brain’s alarm bell.

Basically, you may be experiencing love or desire, but your brain is still stuck on survival mode. This makes it almost impossible to experience pleasure, desire and closeness.

  1. Engaging in Compulsive Sexual Behaviours

Remember how love is also a survival strategy? It draws us closer to others and makes us feel whole. So instead of stress hitting the sexual brakes, some people get locked into patterns of feeling out of control sexually and having multiple partners. In this case, sometimes the innate survival strategy prioritizes closeness for that feeling of being whole; however, when this is a survival mechanism, it’s often happening from that “collapse” stress response, or a more dissociated place. People stuck in this pattern may experience a brief feeling of relief but may still struggle with the deeper components of intimacy.

  1. Additional common symptoms
  • sexual avoidance/anxiety
  • sex feeling like an obligation
  • dissociation during sexual activity/not present
  • negative feelings associated with touch
  • difficulty achieving arousal/sensation
  • feeling emotionally distant
  • flashbacks/intrusive thoughts or images during sexual activity
  • engaging in compulsive sexual behaviours
  • difficulty maintaining an intimate relationship
  • vaginal pain in women; erectile dysfunction in men
  • feelings of shame
  • negative beliefs about sex

This is a short list of reactions, there are many more impacts on a person’s sense of self and experiences in relationships. If you’d like to get a better sense of how your traumatic experiences may have impacted your sex life, you can have a look at Wendy Maltz’s Sexual Effects Inventory here https://www.havoca.org/survivors/sexuality/sexual-effects-inventory/

Remedies: Developing a Healthy Sex Life 

This short article was just to give you an idea of some of the many ways that sexual assault can impact intimacy. These impacts sometimes show up directly after the assault and sometimes show up years later.

Stay tuned for the next article which will talk about some of the many ways to heal the parts of your brain that are impacted by the trauma and to help you to find safety and pleasure in intimacy.

Sources

Maltz, Wendy (2021). Healthy Sex: Promoting Healthy, Loving Sex and Intimacy. https://healthysex.com/

Nagoski, Emily (2015). Come as you Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform your Sex Life. Simon & Schuster Inc: New York. 

University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (2019). Sexual intimacy after sexual assault or sexual abuse. https://www.ualberta.ca/media-library/ualberta/current-students/sexual-assault-centre/pdf-resources-and-handouts/intimacy-after-sexual-assault-2019.pdf

How Can Therapeutic Dance/Movement Help Me?

How Can Therapeutic Dance/Movement Help Me?

Many people feel apprehensive or intimidated when they hear the word “dance.” Movement is a beautiful and intricate part of who we are. We are in constant motion, from blood flowing through our veins to neurons firing during thought processes and through the simplicity of breath. Our very existence depends on the continuous movement happening within the body.

Therapeutic dance, or movement, is a mind-body approach for working with emotions towards holistic wellness. We often dismiss the subtle signs of stress from our bodies until it becomes a chronic issue, preventing us from functioning in our daily lives. Therapeutic dance and movement explores the presence of emotions within the body and shows us how to care for the emotional symptoms that we may find.

What do you mean by emotions living in the body?

Have you ever noticed sayings like, “I have butterflies in my stomach,” “That gave me the heebie-jeebies,” or “My blood is boiling”? These sayings are examples of how we experience nervousness, fear, and anger in the body. Some people describe these feelings in their body as “gut feelings.” We often override gut feelings using the mind and ignore what is happening in the body. Learning to trust in the body’s wisdom is an important skill to possess in today’s fast-paced world.

In therapeutic dance and movement, the connection between the mind and the body is facilitated as a conversation used to achieve a deeper understanding of the self. Emotions in the body are made aware by paying attention to the subtle shifts in the body and linked back to spoken language.

What does an appointment look like?

Clients are often surprised that a session does not have to involve dance whatsoever. Sessions are NOT like a dance class, experience in movement is not even required. Therapeutic dance/movement is an approach that gives your body the space to express what words cannot. Do you ever move your hands when you talk? That’s a form of therapeutic movement! A session can consist of talking to someone, along with the optional invitation of moving, breath-work, or spontaneous dance. It’s entirely up to you! Another way to interpret therapeutic dance/movement is as a counselling session. Your whole body is invited into the conversation, and expression is created from the inside to the outside.

There have been times clients have said, “I’m not sure why I just did that.” The body knows what the mind may not understand quite yet. Therapeutic dance/movement helps to bring understanding and self-compassion to patterns of being. Session goals are co-created between client and practitioner. With this, a therapeutic movement session becomes a journey of creative expression and experiential processing.

What can therapeutic dance/movement help with?

Therapeutic dance/movement can help with anything, such as stress, pain, difficulty sleeping, relationship issues, chronic illness, temper tantrums, developmental disabilities, and neurodiverse diagnoses.

 Some other issues therapeutic dance/movement can support:

  • Feeling stuck
  • Feeling agitated or angry
  • Anxiety
  • Depression / low mood
  • Trauma
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Tantrums and intense emotional upsets
  • Strengthening relationships

How Can I Start Moving?

Whether you want to start moving by speaking, storytelling, writing, drawing, or dancing, get your emotions moving today by calling our office to book a therapeutic dance/movement session. Have a quick question about therapeutic dance/movement? Click here to email our therapeutic dance/movement practitioner, Stefanie.

What on Earth is EMDR?

What on Earth is EMDR?

If you’ve ever wondered what on earth EMDR is, you’re not alone! While EMDR is well supported by research and has been found to be highly effective for many clients, it can sometimes be a strange concept for people to get used to.

 

So, What Is EMDR?

 

EMDR has been around now for about 25 years and is a highly evidence-based method of treating trauma and anxiety. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and gets its name in part from the fact that it primarily relies on eye movement to work.

 

A client undergoing EMDR is encouraged to move their eyes from side to side in a slow, steady manner while contemplating questions or discussion pieces that relate to their treatment. As odd as it sounds, the reason EMDR works is precisely because of how the brain processes memory. When we are asleep, our brains enter REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), and during this stage of sleep the brain is processing and filing the day’s experiences into our memory, so the next day can occur with a relatively clean slate.

 

Sometimes we get stuck on intrusive thoughts or traumatic material because the experience or issue has not managed to get appropriately filed in our memory. EMDR replicates the REM stage of sleep while the client is awake and alert, and supports the processing of painful memories or recurring intrusive thoughts. Interestingly, because EMDR mimics REM sleep it tends to work quite quickly. If the issues are not too complex, clients can often feel a sense of relief from their suffering in just a few sessions.

 

It’s important to know that at no time during EMDR is the client out of control or in a trance of any kind, and of course, the client can always choose to end an EMDR session at any point if they don’t prefer working in this way or find that they are too uncomfortable. This said, clients almost always leave an EMDR session feeling better than when the session began.

 

The second part of EMDR stands for Desensitization and Reprocessing. The goal of EMDR is to desensitize the client to something that was previously painful and to support them in reprocessing the painful issue.

 

So, what does this look like in an appointment? A client undergoing an EMDR session can expect to meet with a therapist in a comfortable room where they will both sit. The client will be asked some questions by their therapist, and then guided to use back-and-forth eye movement. During this time all the client has to do is sit quietly and allow themselves to think. Following about 1 minute of this, the therapist will check in with some questions and guidance. The eye movement sets will be repeated a number of times as the therapist leads the client through a set format of questions and feedback. Toward the end of the session, the therapist will switch gears and invite the client to “reprocess” the issue being addressed.

 

Clients then typically end an EMDR session feeling quite calm. The only side effect is that some folks find EMDR somewhat tiring, as the brain has been stimulated to work quite hard for the time of the session.

 

The good news is that while EMDR is especially effective for conditions like PTSD, it has also been reported as effective for panic attacks, complicated grief, dissociative disorders, disturbing memories, phobias, pain disorders, performance anxiety, stress reduction, addictions, sexual and/or physical abuse, body dysmorphic disorders and personality disorders.

 

As not all therapists have the necessary training, it’s important to note that EMDR should be done only with a therapist who is properly certified in working this way. If you’re curious about whether this treatment could work for you, reach out to us! We’re here to help.

 

Kathryn Priest-Peries is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Registered Social Worker who has Advanced Level Training in EMDR and has been a practicing therapist for over 30 years.

Read more about Kathryn here.

Click here to request an EMDR appointment with Kathryn.

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

I have had a year full of rich learning experiences. My training in dance/movement therapy began and I experienced movement in new ways as courses progressed throughout the year. With an artistic background in dance, I have been trained to look, move, and perform a certain way. Engaging in the therapeutic aspects of the movement has been an eye-opening and challenging experience. I found myself defaulting to the comfort zone of performing rather than allowing my innate internal rhythms to lead. It is emotionally safer to produce choreography and follow dance steps than it is to engage emotions and allow them to move through me. As I reflect on this past year, I realized the comfort zone can be a difficult place for many of us to leave.

 

Living in Greater Vancouver, the normal flow of life is going from one event to the next without taking a break to recalibrate our system and allow the body to catch up to our mind and emotions. Many of us go from dropping off our children at school, straight to work, to appointments or extracurricular activities, and then crash at the end of the day. Our nervous systems are being stimulated with sensory input at an 80/20 ratio throughout the day (80% incoming, 20% releasing).1 This can be extremely overwhelming for our systems, particularly for children. To release ourselves from the busyness of life requires us to move outside of our comfort zone and the life patterns we have created for ourselves.
 


The Mind-Body Disconnection

 

With the imbalance of incoming and outgoing stimulation, we risk losing our mind-body connection and become influenced by our external environment. Interoception information is received and transmitted from inside the body.2 When we are interoceptive, we are aware of things like hunger, pain, and body sensations our emotions elicit. The butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous, the tightening of our chest when we’re angry and the crushing headaches associated with grief are all examples of interoception.

 

When we push through symptoms signalling us to slow down or take a break, we tend to lose our interoception. The accumulation of this mind-body disconnection has adverse effects on our health. We get fatigued, stressed, and sick. All emotions have a muscular pathway. If emotions are not permitted to sequence through the neuromuscular system, the consequences are ill health, both physically and mentally.3
 


Dance/Movement Therapy

 

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) takes individuals to the edges of their comfort zone to integrate the mind and body to support wholistic wellness. Deriving from modern dance, the field of dance/movement therapy began in the early 1930s. Marian Chace was a pioneer in the DMT field being the first to bring dance into hospital settings as an intervention for war veterans battling post-traumatic syndrome disorder.4 Chace developed therapeutic dance/movement interventions as mental health treatment and supported the creation of the American Dance Therapy Association, serving as the first president.

 

Today, dance/movement therapy is recognized world-wide with therapists serving in schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centres, forensic settings, prions, and more. The goals of dance/movement therapy are to support the integration of emotional, physical, cognitive, and social aspects of an individual. A common misconception is dance/movement therapy is limited to dancers. No dance experience is necessary to engage in DMT. Movement therapy occurs on a continuum of movement. Engaging in DMT can be as simple as discovering your breath pattern, moving your arms while sitting, or finding movement through speaking.

 

The body has a memory and sometimes those body-based memories arise without our understanding. In dance/movement therapy sessions, individuals may be answering questions non-verbally with a series of movements. Emotions always result in physical actions.5 The only way to work through the pre-verbal experiences is through the body. Dance/movement therapy allows individuals to integrate interoception with their externals worlds by sequencing innate movement patterns before verbally naming the process.

 

Discover Your Movement

 

Our first relationship is self-to-self. We are designed to move and our bodies are in constant motion. From blood surging through our veins to cells moving across our systems, we are in constant motion. Dance/movement therapy creates opportunities for us to connect to the self and embrace the motion within. When we are learning to be internally aware, moving can promote self-expression, rhythm, synchrony, and cohesion. The mind-body connection allows for self-integration, resulting in an improved understanding of the self and of others.

 

Beneath each movement lies a need. Movements may come as metaphors or communicate a clear need. Who are we as moving beings? Our bodies have a story to tell. May your courage move you to step out of your comfort zone and discover the flow of your unique movement.

 

* * *

 

Would you like to learn more dance/movement therapy? Join me on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, at 6:30 pm for a free information session at Alongside You. Discover the healing benefits of therapeutic dance/movement and how the mind-body connection contributes to wholistic well-being. Registration (while free) is required.


Saturday, January 28, 2020
Let’s Talk Hope Conference

If you have any questions, please feel free to connect me directly.

 

References:

  1. Kemble, H. S. (2019, September). Introduction to dance/movement therapy I: basic theory, methods, and techniques. Russian Hall, Vancouver, BC.
  2. Hindi, F.S. (2012). How attention to interoception can inform dance/movement therapy. American Journal of Dance Therapy, (34), 129-140.
  3. Kemble, H. S. (2019, December). Introduction to dance/movement therapy II: applying methods with clinical populations. Russian Hall, Vancouver, BC.
  4. Chaiklin, S. & Wengrower, H. Eds. (2009). The art and science of dance/movement therapy: life is dance. New York: Routledge.
  5. Betty, A. (2013). Taming Tidal Waves: A Dance/Movement Therapy Approach to Supporting Emotion Regulation in Maltreated Children. American Journal of Dance Therapy 35 (1), 39–59.
What Is Play Therapy?

What Is Play Therapy?

Last week, Andrew wrote a blog about the logistics of getting counselling for your child, I would like to provide some insight into what happens inside the counselling room. I absolutely love working with children. I find it challenging, inspiring, rewarding and unique. Often folks ask me “So, does the child just sit on a couch and tell you how they are feeling, does that even work with kids?” I chuckle and assure them that counselling with children is going to look very different than counselling with adults.

Enter PLAY therapy.

 

What Is Play Therapy?

 

I believe that play therapy is the most developmentally appropriate therapeutic approach for children. I feel that it is doing children a disservice if we ask them to communicate their inner world the same way we ask adults, which happens primarily through talk therapy. Children do not have the same cognitive ability as adults, therefore, play therapy bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought.1 Play therapy provides the opportunity for children to express their feelings and thoughts in a way that is familiar to them because typically children love to play.

To this, some might question, “Are you just playing then?”  The answer is unequivocal, “No, quite the opposite.” There is much meaning in play; Froebel says, “children’s play is not a mere sport. It is full of meaning and import.”2 Play is the natural language of children. Play is the way children communicate. Garry Landreth says, “toys are used like words by children, and play is their language.”3 While engaging in play therapy, the child uses the toys in the room to communicate thoughts, experiences, situations and feelings.

 

My Approach To Play Therapy

 

Each counsellor who works with children has a different way of engaging with the child through play therapy. For myself, I adopt a posture of curiosity; I want to see the child’s world through their eyes. Typically, the first session is about establishing trust and rapport, just like a session with an adult client. Personally, I find sitting on the floor and meeting the child at their level is helpful. I have a box of fidget toys that I have available on the floor or table, these are for the child to squish and fiddle with as we talk and play. Often if a parent is in the initial session, I will encourage the parent to use a toy too.

In order to help facilitate the sometimes awkward first meeting jitters, we play Getting to Know You Jenga. This is a tower building game with a twist – each block has a question. The child is encouraged to answer the question and this helps establish a rapport and points of connection. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the child’s ability to direct the conversation to the areas that are needed to be focused on. This is modelled in the way that child answers the questions and, in turn, ask me questions. When I have my initial meeting with the parent, I often share that my trust needs to be earned. Often a child might share a small piece to “test the waters” and see if I am paying attention. Like playing pass with a ball, I need to catch what they have shared with me and convey to the child that I have heard them.

 

What Is A Play Therapy Session Like?

 

Each play therapy session can look different. For me, I am all about the feelings. It is vital for children to grow up with a greater understanding of their feelings and learn healthy ways to express their emotions. I try to incorporate as many different modalities as I can. Sometimes it might be colouring pictures of feelings and emotions, other times it is outlining their body and drawing where they feel that emotion. Other times it is playing in the dollhouse and sharing about their family. There are incredible books that provide wonderful language for children as they process their feelings. One of my favourites is In My Heart, which beautifully describes some of the many emotions that are found in our hearts. For the more active children, we can play catch and answer questions back and forth.  I really try to tailor the activities to the likes of each child.

One of my favourite ways to work with children is through the use of the sand tray. Picture a mini sandbox complete with figurines to play with. The child is encouraged to use the sand tray to create a scene. The child can build a magical world or perhaps create a scene that is more realistic. The beauty of the sand tray is that often it is a way to visibly show what a child might be feeling internally. As the child creates, depending on the preference of the child, I am asking questions and gaining insight or silently attending to what they are sharing with me.

 

How Can Play Therapy Help My Child?

 

Just the same as adult counselling, when I am in the room with a child, it is my desire to provide empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, as these are the core conditions that help to facilitate change.5 I truly believe it is the relationship with the therapist that helps to promote growth and healing.  However, that does not negate the important role the parent plays in the relationship. When a child has shared something significant or created something powerful, I encourage the child to invite the parent into the room to see and learn together. As I remind the child, we only see each other during sessions, but you see your parent more. I want the parent to be well equipped to take the themes and language that was spoken during the session and translate that to home.  I want to thank you, parents, for trusting me with the most precious gift: your child. I want to work with you in order for a child to learn, grow and develop into a confident and healthy person.

Although the mediums used in play therapy are often very fun, many times, the work that is done in play therapy is difficult – children work hard at expressing and understanding their big feelings. It is my role to help facilitate these discoveries through conversation and play. Play therapy can be a powerful experience where great changes can happen for our kids – changes that may not happen without the freedom and safety of the play therapy sessions. Play therapy is a place where children get to be who they are at their core and have that be ok and celebrated. A place where they can explore difficulties in life in a safe, supported way.

Working with children is a privilege and one I do not take lightly. If you are interested in learning more about play therapy or setting up an appointment for your child, please do not hesitate to contact me through our website.

 

 

References

  1. Bratton, S. & Ray, D. (2000). What the research shows about play therapy. International Journal of Play therapy, 9, 47-88.
  2. Froebel, F. (1903). The education of man. New York: D. Appleton.
  3. Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play Therapy: The art of the relationship. Third Edition. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
  4. Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.
  5. Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy, Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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