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Childhood trauma and Play Therapy

Many children who come from domestic violence families have witnessed unimaginable abuse and have experienced intense fear and trauma. Mo (pseudonym) was no exception, he was an eight-year-old boy who was exposed to domestic violence in his family. He had lived most of his life watching his mother experience violence and abuse in a series of unhealthy relationships. Before being moved to a DV shelter, Mo called 911 after he watched his mother’s head get smashed through a window. DV is noted as one of the most severe adverse events during childhood and leaves many children feeling a lack of protection or safety (Gil, 2010).

Play therapy emphasizes that the therapeutic relationship serves as the foundation for everything that occurs in the therapeutic process and stresses the importance of fostering and development of children’s connectedness to others (Kottman and Meany-Walen, 2018).

When Mo started play therapy, he displayed moody and irritable emotions, dissociative symptoms, such as giving blank stares, “checking out,” not speaking. He was aggressive and had a frequent outbursts at the shelter. Common emotional responses to trauma include intense fear, helplessness, or horror resulting from the trauma itself and from the absence of love, care, and protection (Gil, 2010; Herman, 2015). Mo showed absolutely no interest in talking about his experiences or feelings.

Reconnection is a major goal in trauma therapy. Crucial C’s of Adlerian play therapy are positive goals for children in trauma therapy. Crucial C’s include-feeling connected, feeling capable, feeling as though they count and developing courage. Mo’s play reflected signs of trauma and traumatic themes like chaotic, aggressive, violent and repetitive play. Through repetitive play, children appear to decrease their stress of remembering what occurred, allowing themselves to experience what may have felt unbearable and beginning the process of healing (Gil, 2010).

Mo initially presented as tense, rigid and guarded during play. Eventually, after approximately six sessions, his play theme shifted, he started gaining insight and making changes in thinking, feeling and behaving. His mood and behavior changed, he presented as calmer and could hold eye contact longer. Mo was able to maintain a safe distance from his difficult experiences and still communicate important concepts. Telling stories aids in calming emotions and integrates both brain hemispheres, allowing a child to understand and process experience.

Thahira Ahmed, MA, LPC-S, RPT

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