“You can tell me anything, I’m a puppet!” Why Play Therapy Works

Criss-cross applesauce, a spunky boy sits on the whimsical playroom carpet, eyes wide, mouth agape. He’s listening to my impulsive puppet Freddy exclaim, “I get so mad, I want to kick him in the leg!”  Freddy elaborates: “Why won’t he just play my game, my way, every time?”  It’s no longer any surprise. Nine times out of ten the amazed child replies, with visible relief, “THAT’S JUST HOW I FEEL!”


The child I have in mind speaks to the puppet, and he’s not alone.  Freed by genuine understanding and clear acceptance, the child opens his heart. He pours out his own troubles to the boy, girl, dragon, wolf, octopus, skunk, or chipmunk on my hand.  “I know, last night I kicked my brother,”  he offers, commiserating with the puppet.  “I hate time out.”  Another child reveals, “I did that in school and got sent to the principal. It was the worst day EVER.”

Now, I have a nice degree on the wall, with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.  But puppets are my co-therapists and their credentials seem to surpass mine.  Children tell the puppets far more than they tell me alone.  Why is this?

The answer is simple: Puppets give safe distance.   No child wants to see a therapist who fixates on her problems, nor feel there’s something wrong with herself. In my playroom, it’s the puppet who has the problem. And to a much greater extent than the child.  That’s the secret.  If a child is here for anxiety, Puppet Miranda has hilarious, unreasonable terrors.  The boy here for anger meets puppet Pedro, who mentions unmentionable aggressive thoughts … the very thoughts children harbor and sometimes enact.  The boy can hardly believe Pedro feels the same way.  And before he knows it, we are talking.  Other puppets join us, supportive “voices of reason.”  Four-way conversations ensue between the troubled puppet, the helper puppet, the child … and oh yeah, me.

Puppets help bring the child’s problem comfortably into the room. They often speak for the child, making her feel not so alone and not so BAD.  Puppets are but one of many play therapy tools. But for me and many child providers, they open the door.  Puppets are exceptional delivery vehicles for Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy, described above.  CBPT helps children try on new thoughts and rehearse new behaviors.  And guess who models those — yes, the puppets.

There are many models of play therapy, including directive (didactic in style), non-directive (following in style), and familial (incorporating parents).  One expressive mode is Sand Tray therapy, using miniature toys children select and arrange in sand.  Sand Tray helps children heal from trauma, abuse, and emotional damage too painful to speak aloud.  Regardless of the mode, play therapy provides stand-in symbols (toys, materials) to represent feelings and people, events and things, wishes and fears.  The child’s imagination creates a buffer and a flexible “space” to explore tough stuff.  Therapeutic play allows the freedom to approach and retreat from uncomfortable ideas, memories, and feelings.  Children open up about burdens such as obsessions and compulsions, low self esteem, wishes that one was “never born,” despair, rage and shame.  Play gets inner feelings “out on the table” so we can deal with them together.

So puppets are one tool of the play therapist.  The puppet-child connection is unsurpassed in early childhood psychotherapy. Children often bond with their puppets friends, proudly believing they themselves are the helpers. One child brought a nugget of puppy chow to nurture a chronically anxious puppet. “Worry Wolf,”  she entreated, “you have GOT to get hold of yourself!”  She then rattled off an expert list of self-calming tips for emotional regulation.  Well-remembered and expertly modeled.  Parents bring their children for follow-up visits, amazed with progress. In a hush, they whisper, “He’s been talking about Freddy nonstop for two weeks.”

Good.  Freddy sends a tangible and memorable message out the door – long outlasting the single hour with me.  I ought to put him on the payroll.

#parenting  #playtherapy  #puppets  #self-regulation  #angermanagement #child psychology


Developmental Skylines

The child I have in mind today is growing so quickly, on every dimension of development … but each area progresses at it’s own pace.

In the preschool years, abilities unfold with staggering speed!  Children move from mouthing their toes to balancing upon them, reaching for heights.  Babbled syllables of every language on earth grow into clear speech in the language(s) of home.   Reasoning extends past peekaboo games to twenty-piece puzzles.

The rapid rise in child abilities leaves us gasping at every turn.  But advance in one area feeds expectation for comparable advance in another.   Growth spurts in another child can generate comparisons with one’s own.

Development, however, is like a city skyline.  Buildings of varied heights mirror multiple abilities in different stages of progress.  Look at a cityscape with a mathematical eye and you can visualize a vertical bar graph.  To a child psychologist, those bars are analogous to normative, uneven growth across developmental domains. These areas are Cognitive (reasoning), Emotional, Social, Speech & Language, Toileting, Fine motor, Gross motor,  etc.  In no child do those developmental areas grow evenly.  Just like the varied heights of downtown.   And what a boring skyline it would be if the structures were uniform in shape!

Expect variation between developmental domains in your child.   Support your young ones where they are.   Lags in certain areas might foretell the need for specialized help, but not necessarily so.  If you have concerns, track your observations with detailed notes and refer to them every few months.  Public school districts offer free developmental screenings. Child psychologists conduct developmental evals.  You may consult your child’s teacher or pediatrician, who follow hundreds and thousands of children, if you are worried.   But all those professionals will say a uniform “skyline” is not the developmental norm.   And the window of typical development is very wide.

Observe your child’s individual skyline. And know that your attentive  support encourages growth in each developmental area.