Helping Your Child Cope: back to school after violent school tragedy

My play therapy colleague and New York based child psychologist and author, Dr. Laurie Zelinger, PhD, ABPP, RPT-S, has contributed to a very helpful article for us grown-ups as we try to  help children navigate their feelings and cope with the terror, anxiety, confusion, and helplessness after yet another tragic school shooting. Please click the link for the full article (permission granted):

I encourage us all to follow Dr. Zelinger's Pearls of Wisdom (P: Prepare; E: Explain, A: Answer, R: Reassure, L: Listen, S: Safeguard), to reflect on the words of dear Mister Fred Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” and to give extra long snuggles today and in the the days ahead.



"Soothe-ing" Tantrums and Meltdowns

Years ago I read a wonderful book on play therapy written by Paris Goodyear-Brown, LCSW, RPT-S. Her creative strategies, concocted over several years of working with children and families, have just the right ingredients: heartfelt, simple, real, honest, effective. One of my go-to strategies for soothing tantrums and meltdowns is a concept she and her colleagues developed: S.O.O.T.H.E.  The acronym is pretty clever and helps keep it snug in my brain for those moments when I need to reach for something helpful! Let's explore this strategy, and perhaps even give it a try (or two, or three, or twenty four) at home or at school this week...

S = Soft Tone of Voice and Face. When children feel anxious they act out. A parent's escalation of tone of voice (loudness) and tone of face (those facial expressions that signal you're upset) won't help the situation. If a parent becomes increasingly out of control, the child will too. Think of the situation as a mirror image. Try communicating with a calm tone of voice and face, effectively breaking the cycle and allowing the child a chance at de-escalating by following your lead.

O= Organize the Child's Experience. Children need to know what to expect. This helps to reduce anxiety. Since children have difficulty sequencing information, try reflecting back what the transition expectations are and what enjoyable activity he/she has to look forward to.

O= Offer Choices. Children often experience anxiety when given too many options or too much stimulation (ex: any parent who has taken their child to a SuperStore of any kind, any where, ever, knows this experience). While children need a felt sense of control and self-direction in their choice making, the adults must try their darndest to limit the actual number of choices offered.

T= Touch or Togetherness. When a child is anxious, hungry, or exhausted, he/she is not thinking clearly. Words may seem to go in one ear and out the other. A simple back rub, hug, or snuggle can help de-escalate the child while also returning to those soothing bonds of togetherness (which help us all! truly).

H= Hear What the Underlying Concern is. During tantrums and meltdowns it's important to figure out whether the acting out is willful defiance or anxiety. In my experience, it's usually anxiety. By knowing what the underlying concern is we can change our commands and alleviate the struggle. Ex: A child putting his shoes on after having just learned how.                                                    Parent: "Please put your shoes on", Child: "No!!!", Parent: "When we learn new things we may feel nervous to try them at first. If you need help with those shoes, I'm right here and I'm proud of you."

E= End It and Let Go. Children are resilient. Children are forgiving. Children let things go much faster than adults do. After a tantrum or meltdown, we may feel raw, vulnerable, and frustrated. Reconnecting provides immediate safety and repairing of loving bonds. Parents have a right to their upset feelings, but don't let those linger any longer than a few moments. Let go. After all, as a wise friend once shared with me... "if people, things, and situations were perfect then there would be no need for love or for courage."

Credit given to Play Therapy with Traumatized Children: A Prescriptive Approach by Paris Goodyear-Brown (2010).

Back to school homework tips!

Parents are a big influence on a child's success in school! By creating a home environment of encouragement, patience, and presence, children learn valuable lessons about the important process of working hard (ex: taking a little time each night to study for a quiz) over an exclusive focus on the outcome of success (ex: getting that desired A on the quiz). It can also be utilized as quality time together with your child after a busy day.

With these ideas in mind, homework time is not just a time to get it done, but an opportunity to really instill valuable lessons and togetherness...which go far beyond the assignment itself. Here are some tried and true tips for success at homework time:

1. Give your child an opportunity to snack, play, read, or just run around for 30-45 minutes right after school. Remember, your child has been learning all day so naturally will crave this recharging time before settling in for homework time.

2. Create a regular time for homework to begin and end. You can get a timer, a bell, a chime, or listen to a family favorite song to mark the beginning and end of homework time. Maybe you'll even make-up a dance or song! Whatever helps get your child (and you!) get into a positive mindset and pleasant groove for homework time.

3. Create a separate space for homework time. It doesn't have to be fancy! (Fun fact: I got through graduate school living in a 200 square foot apartment in Brooklyn. Carving out space can happen, I promise! Need suggestions? Ask me!)

4. Ditch the distractions. This means shutting off the television and putting all your screens in another area for this specific period of time. If you're expecting an important phone call, explain that to your child and put the phone on ringer. This sets the tone that homework time is important to you and deserving of full attention. It also models healthy boundaries with screen time.

5. Understand that an occasional break from homework time can help a child to stay on task. Consider utilizing mindful breathing techniques (ex: pizza breaths ... "breath in through your nose to smell the delicious pizza, now cool it off with your out breath") or fun stretches (ex: "reach up to the stars and make a wish!").

6. On particularly stressful days, consider bringing your own homework to the table. Parents have a lot on their plates ... bills, updating calendars, letter writing, etc. Parents' approaches to doing their own homework can be a positive example for your child ... and help to get your own work done! Heck, it may even help to take some of those pizza breaths and stretches yourself too :)

6. Help your child to organize their homework assignments when they are complete. Help them treat their homework with care and respect. Color coding is a bright and engaging way to do this.

7. When homework assignments are corrected by the teacher and returned, highlight the child's efforts by posting these on a special homework bulletin board or on the refrigerator. Keep in mind that posting imperfect pages is a great idea too especially if you know how hard the child worked on that assignment... posting that C or D grade alongside other A or B grades gives the child the message that trying your best is just as important as getting the best grade.

8. Just like we schedule homework time, schedule some family fun time immediately after homework time. This creates incentive and keeps children on track. Remember that the quality of that play time is far more valuable than the quantity. So even if it's 10 minutes... it's worth it :)


Play Therapy: The why? The how? The wow!

Play Therapy is an approach to child therapy that builds on the natural communication and learning processes of children (Carmichael, 2006; Landreth, 2002; O'Connor & Schaefer, 1983). In Play Therapy, toys are used as the child's words and play becomes the child's language (Landreth, 2002). Through play, children learn to identify and express their feelings, find alternatives to attention-seeking and problematic behaviors, learn coping skills for relaxation and self-soothing, gain confidence in themselves, and experience mastery within a context that is developmentally appropriate and fun!

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) defines Play Therapy as "the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development” ( Recent research supports an evidence base for Play Therapy, including research in neurosceince (Gaskill & Perry, 2014; Porges, 2011; Schore, 2012: Siegel, 2012; Van der Kolk, 2014) which encourages the use of Play Therapy for both psychological safety and what Van der Kolk (2014) refers to as “visceral safety”, otherwise known as a “gut feeling.” 

Children seek understanding and mastery through play. Play Therapy allows for symbolization, externalization, and miniaturization of the problem a child may be facing (Crenshaw and Kelly, 2015), which enables the child to gradually confront what might otherwise be overwhelming. Play Therapy can help children to express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings (Gil, 1991). In play, problems are reduced down from their complexities into symbolic representations which are far more manageable for a child to approach. When children’s inner worlds are externalized and shrunk down to a manageable size, they can show us what is truly happening. The symbolism inherent in “playing it out” with puppets, figurines, and other carefully selected toys may be disguised to the degree necessary to allow a child to safely engage in repeated attempts at mastery without getting overwhelmed. 

Like a gem with many facets, Play Therapy provides a wide variety of techniques and interventions for the therapist to choose from, ranging from child-directed (i.e. following the child’s lead) to therapist-directed (i.e. following the child’s need through suggestion and directives). At Asheville Child Therapy, we use Play Therapy to naturally and playfully engage children in therapy, to provide children an opportunity to express their inner world, to confidently find solutions to the problems they face, and to help families to grow stronger together!