One of the joys of my work as a therapist is not only engaging in this exciting and fun medium of play therapy, but also teaching parents how to connect with their children and leade them into learning to play in a therapeutic way. After all , the children spend more time with their parents and as parents we have such a powerful impact on our children. Why not be an essential instrument of change! Over the years, one my favorite modalities is Child Parent Relationship Training. One particular mother had experienced such a profound impact in her own life and relationship with her child and seen that she had approached me and wished to tell her story. Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the client.
“Go to your room right now,” I yell.
“NO! You can’t make me!” my four-year-old yells back to me.
“You cannot hit your sister because she won’t play with you. I’m going to count to 3. Now go to your room. 1 . . . . 2 . . . . 2½ . . . . did you hear me? I’m not kidding. You better get to your room by the time I get to 3. 2 ½ . . . . 3. Let’s go right now. Up. Up.”
“I hate you,” she says (as she’s running away from me). I’m now chasing her around the house so I can carry her up to her room. I finally catch her, just in time for her to start hitting me in the arm. As I try to block her from hitting me by grabbing her arm, she quickly switches to kicking. With her back to the stairs, using them as leverage, she bends her knee closer to her body and forces out a strong kick right in my stomach. Shocked and in pain, I try to gain composure without losing my grip on her hands. Before I can do anything else to corral her, her leg bends again, and she kicks me in the forehead.
The pain in my head stuns me, and I’m flabbergasted at what just happened. At that point, I realize this isn’t going anywhere good, so I let go of her and walk away as my eyes well up with tears. I just got beat up by my four-year-old daughter again! Heading to my room, I slam the door shut, and warm tears spill down my cheeks one right after the other, like flood gates just opened. How did we get here?
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated occurrence in our house. This is an all-too-familiar scene that would play out on a daily basis, at least three times a day, sometimes as many as five times a day. We’ve been having these “temper tantrums” since she was about two years old. We expected them at two, even felt “ready” for them since we had already gone through these stages with our older daughter, Katie. Then the threes came, and it was more of the same. The threes are almost worse than the twos. So we weren’t surprised when the tantrums started getting violent. The screaming was relentless. She’d scream for 30 or 40 minutes without stopping.
We got a tip from another parent long ago on how to keep your child in her room when she was punished. “Turn the lock around and put the lock on the outside of the door, facing the hall,” they told us. “Works great.” So this way we can lock her in her room for three minutes for time-out. Great plan, we thought. That didn’t stop her from pitching a fit and doing things to make us even more angry. She would flip the glider rocking chair upside down, throw the digital clock on the floor, rip off all the sheets and covers off her bed. My personal favorite was when she took every article of clothing she owned out of the dresser and threw them all over her room. One time she even knocked over her nightstand. How can a four-year-old have that much rage in her? What could possibly be making her so angry?
We tried so many different kinds of discipline, too. Time-out, taking privileges away (TV, tablet time, etc.), standing in the corner, even spanking (which I know is a hot topic among parents). I read books, tons of books. I read magazine articles, scoured the Internet, talked to other parents. No one seemed to understand what I was going through. Books had good suggestions that I would try, but nothing worked for more than a day. She just continued to have these tantrums day after day, hour after hour. She would scratch me with her fingernails, digging in my skin to draw blood, bite me, slap me, kick me, hit me, pull my hair, pull my clothes until they tore – whatever she could do to hurt me. The weird thing was she would only hurt me. She would never hurt anyone else – her sister, her dad, her grandparents. Only me.
What I’ve been describing was one side of Natalie. The other side of Natalie was happy, loving, cuddly, super sweet, full of joy, always smiling, a character, loved being center stage and making everyone laugh. She hugged everyone. She never met a stranger. Not only would she make friends with kids at the park, she would be hugging them and be “best friends” after ten minutes of playing. That was my daughter. That was my little girl — not this angry, raging, violent person that appeared a couple of times a day. I was truly convinced she had a split personality, something terribly wrong with her medically. What didn’t add up was this behavior only happened at home and only with me. Oh, don’t misunderstand me. She’d scream at my husband (her daddy), and she’d backtalk him and stomp her feet, but it never escalated beyond that.
At preschool, her laughter, her smile was contagious. Teachers would say she could cheer up any child who was upset at drop-off. She greeted everyone as they walked in the room as if she hadn’t seen them in years. “Landon is here. Yea!! Julia is here! Carter is here! Yea!” Her teachers at preschool and at church LOVED her. They would fight over who was getting her when she was going into the next grade level. They even had a nickname for her at carpool, “Smiley Natalie.” She never had a behavior problem anywhere else.
But the outbursts kept happening on a daily basis, several times a day. She was four now – in fact, midway through her fours, about four-and-a-half. At two and three years old it was easy to convince myself that it was just her age. “Terrible twos, terrible threes.” But now that she was getting closer and closer to five, it became harder to justify her behavior to myself and my husband. It was wreaking havoc on our family. We lived in fear every day of what the day would hold. We walked on eggshells around her, not wanting to wake “the beast” inside of her. It felt like we were living with an abusive spouse or an abusive parent, whoever — everyone doing whatever they could to keep her happy.
Her sister Katie would quickly give in if they were fighting over a toy. I would watch her just quickly relent and not even put up a fight for something that was rightfully hers. That was one of the turning points for me. When I saw Katie giving in to Natalie’s every demand, I could see her spirit getting crushed every time it happened. Little by little a piece of each of us was getting taken away every day to make sure Natalie stayed happy. Keeping the storms calmer, even by only one less tantrum a day, became our mission. It was affecting all of us. It was changing who we were. I couldn’t allow it to go on.
So I called our pediatrician to see if I could have a consultation with her to find out if this behavior was still within the realm of “normal” or if we needed help. The nurse empathetically listened to me as I gave her an ever-so-small glimpse into our world. “I don’t know what to do,” I bawled. “If she’s like this at four, how will she be as a teenager? Am I a terrible mom?” I let the questions fly out, one right after the other. When I stopped to breathe, she quickly jumped in with reassuring words of wisdom.
“We will get to the bottom of this. We will get you some help. Unfortunately,” she said, “you’re not the first call we’ve had like this, and even more unfortunately, it won’t be the last. I can tell you from experience that you are doing the right thing by getting a handle on things right now.” She was so reassuring that by the end of the phone call, I felt like somebody finally understood what I was going through. She sent me a list of counselors and psychiatrists that their office recommended.
After doing some preliminary research on “children and counseling,” “behavior issues,” etc., I stumbled across the term Play Therapy. It intrigued me so I watched a quick video about it online. It basically explained that adults talk about their problems, fears, etc. But children aren’t developed enough yet to know how to do that. The way children “talked” about their problems was through play. These specialists work with children through play to help the children with what they are going through. There are certain counselors (or therapists) who specialize in Play Therapy. I knew that’s what we needed for Natalie. I searched the Internet for “Play Therapists,” and that led us to Ms. Rebecca.
Fast-forward through several months of playtime with Ms. Rebecca and a lot of work on my part (and my husband’s part) to a year later. I can enthusiastically say it’s the best thing we could have done for our family and for Natalie. I’m always skeptical when I hear people tell stories like this, so I say it from the bottom of my heart for other families going through similar circumstances. Play Therapy has helped our family tremendously. Natalie is so much happier and healthier emotionally.
Are things perfect? Uh, no! Are we tantrum-free? No. But we went from having several tantrums a day to one, maybe two a month. And rarely is there any violence. Was the process easy? No, it was a lot of work, to be totally honest. We had to be totally committed to learning new ways of doing things. It took a big time commitment as well. Am I glad we did it? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? 100% absolutely. Did it work overnight? No. Did the rage of anger and outbursts just stop happening like magic? No. Things got better a little at a time. In fact, there were points where she was doing better, and then she’d be back to a tantrum every day for a week. But when I felt discouraged, my husband helped me stop and look at the big picture by asking, how are things compared to when we first started?
The thing about Play Therapy is, it’s a big learning process — learning how to communicate with our daughter in a way we could both understand each other. The biggest thing we learned was that it’s okay for her to be angry or sad or mad. We had to learn how to “be” with her in those emotions. We worked with her and taught her how to get her anger out in a safe way, how to express those emotions appropriately.
Play Therapy works if you work it. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a list of “do this, this, and this and things will be better.” My daughter and I “played” with Ms. Rebecca on a weekly basis, an hour at a time for about four months. At the same time I read two books, and one of the books was about “special playtime” with your child. It had a workbook that went with it. As I read through the book, I did the assignments in the workbook. I met with Ms. Rebecca every other week alone, and we discussed the workbook, the book, and how things were going at home. The goal was, when I finished the book and workbook, I would start doing “special playtime” with Natalie at home as well as with Ms. Rebecca. Once I got comfortable with the play sessions at home and we were making progress with her behavior, we would “graduate” from seeing Ms. Rebecca. Natalie and I would continue our 30-minute sessions weekly at home. It took commitment to keep doing it on our own, but we were seeing positive changes with her. We’ve also learned how to recognize when she’s starting to get upset, and we remind ourselves the new approach to handling it. These days I can usually thwart the problem before anger kicks in.
It’s been seven months since we graduated from seeing Ms. Rebecca, and our lives are so much more peaceful. It’s given me such an insight to Natalie and how she processes things that I started doing special playtime with our older daughter, Katie. Her playtime looks different from Natalie’s because she’s three years older, but basically it’s a 30-minute period of time where I do nothing except focus on Katie. We do whatever she wants. Sometimes we play a game. Sometimes we do art. Sometimes we build things, but no matter what, it’s her time with my complete attention, no interruptions, no phone calls, no one else in the room. Just us playing, talking, learning about her, listening to her.
To sum it all up, Play Therapy changed our family dynamic. I highly recommend it for anyone who is having behavior problems with their child(ren) and are desperate for help. It is a commitment; it is hard work. But it is worth it!