Can Play Therapy Help Anxious Children?
As adults we may use the word “anxious” to explain how we are feeling, but for children this could be a completely alien word and mean absolutely nothing to them! It is important to understand the language children may use to explain that they are feeling anxious. We may be familiar with the phrases “I’m scared”, “I’m worried” or “I’m frightened”, but I have known children to explain their anxious feelings in these ways also:
“I have a stomach ache”
“I feel butterflies in my tummy”
“I feel sick”
“I have fizzy arms and legs”
Children do not have such developed concepts of language yet, and will explain what is going on inside their body in sometimes wild and wonderful ways. One technique I have employed in Play Therapy to help make sense of this is to use a blank body template with a child, and often with the parent there too so we can all understand together.
It looks a little like this:
When the child feels calm and only if they are happy to do so, together we can have a go at drawing and/or writing what it feels like when they experience “anxiety”, and where these feelings are in the body. What one child experiences can be completely different from another. It helps to have some knowledge of typical places anxiety can show up in the body to help guide the child to think about this, “Some people feel things in their tummy, I wonder if you do too?” and to have some prompts such as “I wonder what colour that feeling is?” or “What does that feeling look like, is it sharp or wiggly?” for example if a child seems stuck. Allow the child to express themselves in this activity in the way they wish, using their own language and choices.
You may then have something that could look a bit like this:
We can go through the picture and talk about what the feelings are and where they happen, and this can help both the child and the adult understand what is going on for that child and what it means. So, talking through the visual and a child stating “My heart feels tickly” can be understood as the sensation of a faster heartbeat as they experience anxiety, and through this activity the parent can now know that this phrase for a child means they are feeling scared or anxious. This activity can be really helpful for bridging the communication gap between child and adult, and open up conversations and understanding about anxiety. I’ve found this tool very helpful for enabling parents to understand some of the non-verbal communication a child displays when anxious also, so a child drawing on the template that they may cry when they feel anxious can help the parent understand that they this could be a sign that they feel scared, rather than upset/annoyed/having a tantrum..!
This activity can also be used to ask the child “What can the grown-ups do to help when you feel like this?”, they may surprise you with their answers! A child may tell you they need a cuddle, or to have some quiet space to themselves somewhere they feel safe. Remembering this when a child is anxious can help you take care of them as they are most likely not going to be able to communicate so well when an anxious episode occurs. Sometimes just having someone to say “Okay, I can see you feel really anxious right now and I know it feels scary, but I’m going to be with you” is enough. Being heard and understood has such a valuable impact on a child and can help them feel less alone.
Understanding and opening up communication is a brilliant first step towards things feeling better, and just doing a simple activity like this can have a huge positive impact on the child. Play therapy can provide a safe space in which to take part in these activities, and also provide a therapeutic outlet for a child who is experiencing anxiety to express their feelings through the mechanisms of symbol, metaphor and creative play. This can help their anxiety feel less scary and overwhelming for them. If you are concerned your child is displaying heightened anxiety then it may be that a referral for play therapy could be beneficial and help ease some of their anxious symptoms.