Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Playing with Anxiety

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Playing with Anxiety

Article excerpt

In Consultation

Playing with Anxiety

Helping Young Children Face Scary Situations

By Lawrence Cohen

Q: Parents of young, anxious children are often unsure of how to prepare them for a potentially upsetting event. Beyond empathizing with these parents, what tools can I give them to handle these situations?

A: I used to feel a bit helpless when parents asked me how they should tell young children-especially anxious ones-about an upcoming event that may difficult for them. Often attempts to prepare these children in advance for the event, such a doctor's visit, just lead to prolonged agitation. But not preparing them runs the risk of delivering a shock that's hard to recover from. Fortunately, a powerful session with a mother and daughter clarified the principles that would come to guide my approach.

Shoshana, the custodial parent of four-year-old Becca, was in the early stages of a contentious separation from her husband, following years of tension in which their different parenting styles were a continual source of conflict. Shoshana had agreed to overnight visits for Becca, but came to me for help because whenever she told Becca about an upcoming visit, Becca would start showing signs of anxiety, becoming clingy at home with her mother and hoarding toys at school, later saying she was just borrowing them.

Before our first session, I asked Shoshana if she and Becca talked openly about the difficulties with clinging and "borrowing" toys. If they hadn't, I'd have suggested that Shoshana gently broach the topic as something the three of us could talk about and play some games about. But Shoshana told me that they'd had several conversations about these behaviors, so I felt comfortable bringing them immediately into what I refer to as the play zone, where young children can address difficulties more effectively.

To begin, I picked up a toy and said to Becca in an exaggerated manner, "I'm going to borrow this. Hmm, maybe I'll put it in my pocket." Becca promptly came over to take the toy away from me. I pretended to cry and then "borrowed" a different toy. My guidelines for this kind of play are first to lead by introducing a theme or issue, and then to follow wherever the child takes the game. Becca laughed a lot as she took away my "treasures," while I fake-cried and faked a tantrum.

After a few turns of this game, instead of scurrying off, Becca stayed close to me after she'd taken the toy back. I took this as my cue to introduce the clinginess theme, which I did by asking Shoshana if I could "borrow" Becca, just for a bit. Becca whispered to her mother, "Is he really going to keep me?" Shoshana said that no, it was just a game. I added my reassurance that Becca could leave at any time. Hearing this, Becca stepped close enough for me to catch her in my arms, and was wholly engaged as she focused on escaping from my gentle grasp. Now that the themes of clinginess and hoarding were both in the play zone, I watched closely to make sure Becca was enjoying this game, because the therapeutic play zone requires the same elements of joy and flow as free play.

"You'll never ever get away from me," I bragged. "It may get messy when I make soup, but I'll never let you go!" She giggled and squirmed away, then let me pull her back again. Becca leaned into me as I elaborated on the theme of safety that I assumed was underneath the clinging, saying, "I need you to stay right here next to me, that's the only way I'll be safe!" If she'd seemed distressed in any way by this game, I'd have returned to hoarding her toys and increased the silliness quotient.

It can be a new experience for an anxious child to have someone cling to them, and after a few minutes of relishing the role reversal, Becca began to pull away. I let her go, of course, but ramped up my pretend neediness. Becca kept the game going by staying in range for me to pull her back every time. …

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