This year at Sunset Sip, we’re inviting guests to nurture their inner child and experience the healing power of play like our clients do in treatment.
Last week, Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, provided insight into play therapy and its benefits to the healing process. Now, he shares Victor’s story and how play therapy positively changed his life.
Six-year-old Victor* was referred for mental health services due to symptoms of severe anxiety in school. Victor was selectively mute, meaning he was too anxious and uncomfortable to speak to anyone outside of his immediate family.
Play therapy offered Victor a vehicle through which he could communicate his feelings of fear and anxiety; to tell his story and ask for help, without ever saying a word.
I met with Victor and his mother in the play room, a special therapeutic room full of specific toys, games, and objects to be used by the child and therapist. I didn’t ask questions to get to know him or offer to shake his hand. Why would I? He was deathly afraid to talk to people. I wanted him to experience a totally different kind of person; one who truly understood what he was feeling and what he needed.
Instead, I knelt down at his eye level, keeping a moderate distance. I gently rolled a ball of Play-doh to him, speaking softly; “I brought this for you to use.” He cautiously picked it up, vigilantly never taking his eyes off of me. Continuing in as soothing a voice as possible, I invited him to play; “This is a special room where you can play with any of these toys however you’d like.”
Victor cautiously explored the room and the toys, ever alert to my presence, frequently checking to make sure I was at a safe distance. I began making statements about what I saw, giving meaning and value to all that he did as he played with a toy car on a rug decorated like a race track. “You’re making that toy go around and around. Now it’s stopped. Oh, it crashed.”
With Victor never saying a word, this is how we played for several weeks. Despite a lack of verbal language, Victor communicated a growing trust in his relationship with me. He was excited to meet me for our sessions. We ran together to the play room. He began to make noises and sound effects to animate the toys. And soon, he began to speak.
Our play became more interactive, as he invited me into his play. He spoke, but only within the context of the play, voicing the toys and instructing me how to act. He assigned character roles to me, as he showed me his hurts, fears, and needs. I stayed in character, reflecting the hurts, fears, and needs as if they were my own; communicating to him through my actions; “I understand what you’re showing me.”
For the first time in his life, Victor was able to communicate what he needed to a person who understood what he was trying to say. I was able to relay these messages to Victor’s mother, helping her understand the source of his fear and anxiety while collaborating with her to make appropriate changes in the home and at school to begin Victor’s path to wellness. Change takes time, but Victor and his family continue on a healthy trajectory.
Stay tuned for the next blog post where Nathan introduces us to another one of his former clients, a 15-year-old named Carl*, whose life was positively changed by the power of play!
Tickets and sponsorship opportunities for Sunset Sip 2017 are available at http://bit.ly/SUNSETSIP2017.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.