Play Therapy and Attachment: Strengthening Relationships Through the Child’s Language of Play
By: Rebecca Patterson, MA, LPCC
Children all over our country are growing up in a variety of home environments. In the 1960’s a “traditional” home was considered to be two heterosexual parents who were married and cohabitating. Today this definition has changed, and children are being raised by grandparents, family members, foster homes, and even adoptive homes. Often times the children in these situations have had a disruption in attachment that began at birth. Despite the efforts of their caregivers, there can be a variety of symptoms and behaviors that evolve as a result of not forming a strong bond in infancy. Behaviors can include defiance, distrust, acting out, tantrums, withdrawn behaviors, and more. While we cannot go back and create an attachment that was missing at birth, a Play Therapist can help the guardians to develop a secure bond with their child through a variety of interventions in therapy sessions. There is indeed hope for parents, and it is found though the child’s language of play.
When a new mother delivers a baby their first few months together are spent engaging in skin to skin touch, eye contact, feedings, and developing trust that the mother or father will provide for the infant’s needs. During the first three years of a child’s life their brain develops 700 neural connections per second. The quality of attachment during this time is vital to the child’s cognitive and emotional development. If a child does not receive these early bonding measures, then their development can be impacted in a way that could hinder relationships in the future. If you are caring for a child that you think may be impacted by a disruption of attachment in infancy, here are a few ways that Play Therapy can help improve their relationships with others.
If there has been a disruption in early attachment, then the child may not have experienced nurturing touch or skin to skin contact with their mother or father. The play therapist can assist the child and caregiver with improving attachment with one another through age appropriate interventions that encourages positive affect and touch. These types of interventions are especially beneficial to children who are overactive, aggressive, or pseudo mature.
If you have ever watched a new mother with her baby then you will see her give eye contact, give undivided attention to the baby, smiles at the baby, and she will goo and gah at the child. The baby learns through these actions that the mother takes delight in being with him/her. If a child did not have this experience as an infant, then it can be developed with their current caregiver through Play Therapy interventions. The therapist can assist the guardian with using a nurturing tone, attunement, and experiencing shared positive experiences with the child that will help develop delight with the child.
Another element of a secure attachment is engagement from the parent(s). Engagement refers to how well the adult focuses on the child in a personal and intensive way that helps the child feel “seen” and “heard.” Play Therapy interventions can assist the child and caregivers to develop an engagement that is healthy and positive for the development of their relationship. These interventions are especially helpful for children who are withdrawn, rigid, and avoids contact with others.
Children who have been removed from their family of origin may struggle with trust as a result of the experiences that have been through. Trust becomes a major issue with a child who struggled to develop trust in their parent during infancy. Play therapy techniques can be utilized in sessions with the child and parent to assist them in developing trust with one another in positive ways. The play therapist will assist the parent in learning techniques that can also be used in the home setting to continue the development of trust outside of counseling sessions.
When an infant becomes dysregulated, they send distress cues through their cries and the parent will provide comfort numerous times in these situations. These repetitions of needing help and the parent providing it will comfort the child in knowing that their needs will be met. It is because of these moments that a child will learn to self-soothe on their own. If a child has not experienced this type of comfort in their infancy, then they may not know how to use self-soothing techniques. The play therapist can assist the child and caregiver in creating an environment in which the child feels confident in their ability to soothe themselves if necessary.
If you or your child could benefit from any of the interventions described in this article we are here to help! Mindsight Behavioral Group as therapists who are trained in Play Therapy at each of our offices and we would be glad to talk to you about the services we can offer. To schedule an intake appointment please visit our website at mindsightbehavioral.com or call Brittany at 606-401-2966. We are Mindsight, and we care about your family!