December 18, 2012 Jill Mays

In the wake of tragedy, six tips for coping through play

Like many others across the country and world, we were left speechless by the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We turned to Jill Mays, an occupational therapist who specializes in play therapy, for advice on how to move forward. Here's what she has to say:

As the enormity of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. sets in, parents search for ways to help their children in a seemingly hostile world.  Many sites help guide parents on what to say and how to address the crisis, based on the child’s age and comprehension of the situation. These are extremely important to review and have at the ready if and when your child is ready to talk.

Whether or not you’ve had “the talk,” know your child needs more at this critical time to feel loved, safe, and secure.

Despite our compelling need for more information regarding the crisis, this is the time to put down the electronics. Put on a pair of jeans and get down on the floor to play with your child.  Bring out the favorite stuffed toys or action figures, the building blocks, trucks, and ponies.  Children feel safe expressing their feelings when they pretend with toys. 

Here are some tips on how to proceed:

  1. Keep the play open-ended. Let your child create the dialog and scenarios.
  2. Respond to expressed emotions with neutral and supportive comments (e.g. that must have felt scary for McQueen; looks like Thomas is very angry).
  3. Play on the floor. This allows you to move around using large muscles, which relieves stress and calms the child down.
  4. Don’t force the issue of expressing emotions. When a child sees a grown-up close by, playing on the floor, they intuitively feel more secure and loved.
  5. For older children, create outlets for pent up feelings. Doing a physical activity alongside your child (e.g. a walk or jog) or playing a board game creates the space to have a heartfelt conversation without the pressure.
  6. For very young children without language, bring cushions, pillows and comforters to the designated play area. Climb over pillow-mountains and crawl under blanketed tables. Create a sense of adventure. The movement creates a calming response in the brain. It will help you and your loved one feel better.

After all the horseplay, curl up with a favorite book and hold each other tight. Big hugs help the most.

the buzz in play, parent perspective, sandy hook, child development, play therapy, parenting