Parenting Play Therapy

We recently had the wonderful experience of spending two weeks in Asia, working alongside two Partners who direct a community centre serving refugees. Not every placement wants a family of six to come and ‘help’, and we knew it was a chance for our kids and our family to see a new side of the world.  

One morning I was able to have a small group workshop with about ten mums who had come as refugees from a variety of places in Africa. More effective than any conversation was the presence of a young boy who saw my therapy toys as an invitation to play. I explained a few basics to the mums: that we are all born as, Curt Thompson says, “looking for someone looking for us.” This idea is a basis for a child’s strong and healthy attachment with a safe parent. It is also what can easily be missing from anyone’s life, but especially parents and children who have faced violence, poverty, hunger and trauma.  

Then I shared an idea that was culturally foreign to these mums: in these 10 to 15 minutes focusing on our kids, the kids are the ones in charge! The little boy playing with my toy toolkit loved this. He put on a doctor kit and gave me dozens of injections with a plastic shot, then faithfully covered the fake injection sites with real plasters.  

Even if I could have explained all the science and psychology behind what I was teaching, it wouldn’t have been effective as this little boy’s play. He connected with me. He and I built one layer in a relationship. Going to the doctor and getting injections is a very scary thing for little kids, especially when they need to do it in a new culture. He felt a little sense of power in a circumstance that would normally remind him of his own powerlessness. In all likelihood, I will never meet this boy again. But through his mum’s attentive learning and his appropriate playing, I have a sense of hope that he will be seen, soothed, safe and secure in his journey as a refugee, and that his mum will be able to build a stronger relationship with him.