I often encounter parents who are concerned because their child doesn’t talk about their feelings. Whether it’s in response to a separation or divorce, the death of a loved one, bullying at school, or any other number of issues, parents desire to help their children talk through their emotions. But therein lies the problem: Children do not process emotional content by talking.
Until age 12, our emotional and cognitive development far outpace our verbal development. We experience anger, joy, sadness, frustration, jealousy, and countless other emotions long before we are able to describe these experiences in words. Although children do not verbalize complicated feelings, they still process these feelings. They just do it in a different language – play!
Dr. Garry Landreth, an expert in the field of Play Therapy, states, “Toys are children’s words and play is their language.” When a child comes to Play Therapy, they enter a playroom specifically equipped with toys that allow them express their emotions. Consider the following story of a sand tray Play Therapy activity. While the details of the story are fictional, it provides an excellent example of how children communicate through play.
A play therapist was working with a young girl who was in counseling to process her parents’ separation. The therapist asked her to use the sand tray and miniatures to create her ideal world. She proceeded to create the inside of a house with various furniture and family members in the tray. She pointed to each human figure in the sand tray and said, “This is me, this is my sister, this is my mom, and this is a dad.” Her description of a dad (rather than my dad) was curious to the therapist because she had a dad. The therapist asked her to tell him about the dad in the sand tray, and she responded, “This dad is really nice to mommy and helps her with lots of things. And he plays with me and my sister all the time.” The therapist knew from working with this family that her mom and dad often had volatile arguments and that her dad was rarely present at the home. This child was saying through her play, “I wish my dad paid attention to me and wouldn’t fight with my mom,” or even possibly, “I don’t feel safe when my parents are fighting.” This child was “talking” about her feelings in the language she knew how to speak: play.
Asking children to tell us how they feel using only their words is equivalent to asking a person who speaks German to communicate in Portuguese. They don’t know what to say! The good news is that we can learn to “listen” to the way they do communicate. We can play with our kids!
You can help you children process emotions at home using these tips from the CDC on Active Listening and Special Playtime. If you feel like you or your child needs additional help, reach out to a Play Therapist who is trained in helping children express their emotions through play.