It’s National Play Therapy Week!
In honor of this, clinical therapist Megan Bunting shares a beautiful story of how play therapy helped a young girl find her voice.
Allison experienced her first great loss when, at eight-years-old, her dad moved out of their home one day while she was at school. When I first met Allison, she was reserved and quiet but told me she did not want to talk about her dad leaving. I respected her wishes to not talk about her dad, but invited her to the play room to see what she would share with me through play. When Allison entered the play room, she walked around the room slowly, seeming to take inventory of all the toys and exploring all her options. She settled on some animal figurines and invited me to use the animals to talk with each other and play together in a lighthearted way.
During our second session in the play room, Allison asked me to grab the castle while she scoured through the bins of human figures looking for just the right ones. She would take one out, inspect it and discard it, until finally she found two human figures that resonated with her. She did not give them names, genders or any other identifying attributes. At first, the two figures jumped and skipped and chased each other around the castle, appearing to be having fun together. Then Allison stopped, and looked around for something else. I watched as she again scoured the room looking for just the right instruments to tell her story. Her eyes locked in on a miniature, doll-size sword that she bestowed on one of her human figures. A battle began! I played the part of the nameless, sword-less figure as she played the part of the angry, powerful warrior.
“Take that!” She yelled and laughed as she repeatedly hit my doll with her sword. I pretended to cry out in pain and fear and commented on the imbalance of power between us.
“Take that, Daddy! You’re a stupid Daddy! You hurt me, so I’m hurting you!”
Suddenly, Allison’s figures were no longer nameless or faceless. They were plastic representations of her heartbreak and her relationship with her dad. Without talking in a traditional way, Allison was still able to express her thoughts and feelings about the betrayal she felt by her dad, and I was able to support her in her process.
A few weeks of play therapy later, I walked out to the lobby to greet Allison for our session and noticed a man sitting with her mom. It was Allison’s dad. I introduced myself to him and took Allison back to my office. I checked in with her about her dad being there and asked how she wanted him to participate in session, if at all. Apprehensive at first, she eventually asked me to invite her parents in. At Allison’s request, we all sat on the floor together and played with Legos. We built our structures calmly and cooperatively for several minutes until suddenly Allison decided she wanted to do something else. She invited her dad to a sword fight.
Allison grabbed two, 3-foot-long, foam swords and offered one to her dad. Another battle began! Allison twirled and dodged and wielded her sword toward her dad. Dad jumped and swung and lunged toward Allison with his. They laughed and battled over and over until they were both out of breath. Dad flopped back onto the couch in defeat while Allison leaned against the wall to catch her breath.
“Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. It’s time to clean up,” I announced at the end of session with a smile.
“Hold on!” Allison proclaimed, “I have something to say.”
Allison, standing proudly in front of all of us, turned to her dad, and said, “I’m mad at you for leaving me. Why did you do that?”
Completely shocked by Allison’s courage and strength to announce her truest feelings to her dad, my eyes shot to dad for his response.
“I know, Sweetie. And I’m really sorry.” His tone was sorrowful and genuine. He reached out to Allison for a hug and she jumped right into his arms.
After only a few short weeks of play therapy, Allison progressed from refusing to talk about her dad to actually communicating her honest thoughts and feelings to her dad. Play therapy armored Allison with the words, emotional vocabulary, and confidence to express her deepest emotions to one of the most important people in her life. Dad continues to participate in treatment as Allison and the family continue to heal and rebuild their connection.
Megan Bunting is a clinical therapist in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is especially passionate about helping families heal, communicate and connect through play. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2018 as an intern, Bunting worked as a residential counselor at an emergency shelter for runaway and exploited teens. Bunting earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Cal State Los Angeles.