I can clearly remember the moment I knew our five year old daughter needed therapy.
My husband and I were out of town when I got a call asking someone to go pick her up for the day because of her bad behavior. I can remember where I was standing when we got the call. It had actually been the third call from daycare that day.
I couldn’t tell you what the bad behavior was at this point, because they all sort of run together, but I do remember there were several incidents in that one day. My parents were babysitting her since we were out of town and I felt so guilty that they were the ones who had to deal with handing out the consequences of her bad behavior.
I’d been toying with the idea of putting her in therapy to figure out what was going on with her behavior and how we could help her to not have outbursts. I was so perplexed about why she was acting this way. But for some reason I couldn’t get myself to just pick up the phone and call someone. Why is that simple step so hard sometimes?
Looking back, I think it was too much fear of the unknown.
- How will we fit one more appointment into our schedules?
- How do I know how to pick the right therapist?
- What will it cost?
- How do I deal with insurance?
- Will my daughter be okay with going to talk to someone?
It seems in that moment on the phone with her daycare, my husband and I had hit our rock bottom.
After settling things with my parents and the daycare, I took the leap and called a therapist office in the same building where my husband worked. That’s one way to start with picking a therapist, right? In the moment, I realized we needed to just make the call and figure the logistics out later.
After the initial intake process, we scheduled our first appointment for two weeks later. Now that I know more, I see how lucky we were to get in with someone so quickly. It’s because we chose to be flexible and were matched with an intern who had availability.
Our first session was just my husband and I talking to the therapist about what brought us there. Then the next week, my daughter had her first session. She was excited before, but really excited after. She loved getting to go to an environment where she could be in charge of what they played.
The therapist often would tell me that while it sounds like she is just playing, there is a lot to observe in her play. For example, she would take all of the furniture out of the doll house and set it up just the way she liked it. When the therapist warned her there were just a few minutes left, my daughter would start to get upset that she wouldn’t finish in time or that someone else was going to mess up her work. There was so much to unpack just from that one reaction.
All that to say, over the past 18 months, our family has learned a lot about feelings and how children process life differently than adults.
Here are 5 things I have learned through my daughter’s play therapy:
1. There are so many different forms of trauma, and each one is valid.
I’m not an expert on trauma or trauma-informed care. In my mind, trauma was for people who had been abused, been in a terrible accident or served in a war. What I’ve since learned is that trauma is any experience that causes distress.
In the case of my five year old daughter, her trauma was a big move our family recently made to San Antonio. Her friends, her school, her home – everything was upended. On top of that, I started traveling frequently for work, so her schedule was out of control in her mind. While I figured the move would be an adjustment for her, I had no idea what a five year old’s brain is going through in their development and how traumatic and scary a life change can be at that age.
I’ve also learned that everyone’s trauma deserves to be accepted and dealt with. Of course the trauma of moving is much different from the trauma of child abuse. But it doesn’t serve you to think that your trauma isn’t as important as anyone else’s trauma. So you should put aside the notion that others need help more than you. We all deserve to get help and have mental wellness.
2. Behaviors aren’t always what they seem.
Play therapy has taught me that anxiety looks different to everyone. When we first started, I wanted to figure out why my daughter was so angry.
Through play therapy, we’ve come to recognize that certain situations cause anxiety in my daughter, and that her anxiety comes out in anger. She shows her anger in her hands – by throwing things or hitting/kicking. She also tries to handle her anxiety by keeping control of situations. And when that control is taken away from her, the anger comes out.
Through trial and error, we’ve worked on ways to mitigate the anxiety, and try to avoid getting to the anger stage.
Are we always successful? No way.
Have we seen improvement? So much!
3. Therapy isn’t just for my daughter – it’s for the whole family to learn and grow.
Every therapist will set up their sessions differently. But for our family, our daughter goes in and does her thing and then my husband and I meet with the therapist the last few minutes of our scheduled time while our daughter is safely playing in a room we can watch her in. This is when the therapist will give us insight into what she’s observed during the play therapy session, talk to us about what we’ve observed at home, and give us tools to work through whatever the issue is.
What I’ve come to realize is that therapy is for us as much as it is for our daughter. We’ve learned ways to be better parents. We’ve learned better ways to communicate. We’ve learned how to interpret our daughter’s needs. We’ve learned the brain science behind our daughter’s anxiety.
4. It’s important for my daughter to see my faults so that she learns no one is perfect.
I’ve had a lot of “ah-ha” moments during this process. But the biggest one has to be that by unintentionally shielding my daughter from seeing my own faults, she was learning that she needed to be perfect. She was stressing (and then having a fit) because she did bad on a test or had trouble reading a book. She would freak out about getting in trouble over small things that she wasn’t even in trouble about. If I asked her to apologize to someone, it was a giant feat to get her to admit she made a mistake.
Now that we recognize this issue of her worrying about making mistakes, my husband and I are more aware about talking to her (in context, of course) about times we’ve messed up or didn’t handle a situation well. We go through how we reacted and how we tried to fix the issue. We make sure to apologize to her if we lose our temper with her, which is what we would ask of her if she did the same. It seems like such a simple act, but one that can easily be forgotten if you don’t make it a priority.
Just before bedtime, we often talk about our day. These are some of the prompts we often use to have a meaningful conversation with her:
- Favorite part of your day and why
- Two things you are grateful for from the day
- Something you didn’t like about your day and why
- A struggle you had and how you can do better next time
These prompts often give silly answers that don’t make sense (like how she recently told me her favorite part of her day was riding the bus home but her least part of her day was leaving school….on the bus. What???). But it keeps the conversation open so that when there are struggles in the day, I have a place where I can say “I noticed you were struggling with XYZ today. Would you like to talk about it?” She almost always wants to talk about it.
5. Nothing worth having comes easy.
This process has been tough. There have been many bad days, embarrassing parenting moments, frustrated family members, side eyes from strangers, and set backs. BUT just when I least expect it, I see a breakthrough. Sometimes others can’t see the change, but a small comment or gesture shows me that she is listening and growing.
Routine has been the biggest help with finding these breakthroughs. The routine is activated when she starts to freak out about something. Our current routine (which has grown over time) starts with getting her to take a deep breath so she calms down, includes several tactics we’ve talked through to get her to the point where she will take a deep breath, patiently waiting for that deep breath (the deep breath really is that important), discussing consequences and actioning moving forward.
The old adage “practice makes perfect” works here too. The first time doesn’t necessarily go well with the routine and over time it will need adjustment. But the more we use it, the faster we move through the routine. Notice how I say “we” here – because it is a team effort.
One thing the therapist told us in the beginning was that her goal was to work her way out of a job with us
She meant that one day we would have the tools we needed to move on and not use play therapy anymore. We are getting close to that point. Right now we visit with her once every 2-3 weeks instead of weekly. And when it is time for me to go in and talk to her, I spend my time reporting on the growth I’ve seen in all of us. It’s a bit scary to not have that crutch of those appointments, but now I know the signs to look for if we need therapy again in the future.
You can learn a lot about your child by just watching them play and interact with others. There’s no shame in seeking a therapist for you or your child. All the worry about starting therapy can be figured out if you just take the leap.
There are numerous child therapists in San Antonio, and JFS is one place where you can find them. JFS has licensed counselors who specialize in child and family mental health. Because JFS believes cost should never be a reason why you don’t seek help, they have a variety of payment options that the intake coordinator will go over as soon as you call. So please reach out if you need help.
I hope that you’ll remember this if you find yourself in a situation similar to mine.
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