Play therapy can help children cope with divorce. Even in the most amicable of separations, children feel the effects of divorce. They experience the stress of their parents, as well as their own anxiety and fears, whether conscious or unconscious, about a number of questions. For example: “Was it my fault? Will I get to see mommy or daddy when I want to? Will I have to change schools? Why am I the only kid among my friends whose mommy and daddy live in separate houses? Why can’t we all live together like we used to? Will they still love me the same”?
How can play therapy help?
Play therapy allows children the space to explore deep emotional experiences that are often stored in the unconscious mind. In play therapy, children use toys and play to symbolize what they are feeling. With children of divorce, there is often a “back and forth” in the play therapy session. For example, the water moves back and forth between containers, the child moves back and forth between the playroom and the waiting room, the characters in the sand tray move back and forth between places- and often the child embodies this sensation by moving or rocking back and forth in his/her own body.
Sometimes, a child may demonstrate a need for a sense of control and predictability. For example, a child might announce into a toy microphone what’s coming next each step of the way (communicating her stress around unpredictable changes). For children who are experiencing even higher levels of stress, they may turn to protective and assertive toys such as handcuffs and toy weapons in order to exert the sense of power and control that they are needing to feel as a response to their parents’ separation.
Play therapy provides children with the space and the professional guidance to explore their own deep emotional experiences. They are given the opportunity and tools to process stressful and overwhelming feelings. They learn how to understand their emotions and work to increase their ability to self-soothe and self-regulate. Play therapy can also give parents a snapshot into their children’s emotional world, ideally giving parents more opportunities to meet the child’s emotional needs.
Sanam, June 2012
Kids Health, 2018