A Play Therapist's Way of Helping Children Identify, Make Sense, & Express their Emotions

There is a great video on YouTube called “Introducing Andrew” created by the Association for Play Therapy. The video starts out with a young boy, around the age of 7, dressed in a suit and tie, with a briefcase in his hand. The child has just come home from school. He looks disheveled and warn out from a stressful day. When he enters the house, he finds his parents sitting happily on the couch. They ask him how his day went. He responds by articulately identifying the whirlwind of complex, well-defined emotions that he had experienced throughout the school day in a straightforward, adult-like fashion. This clip is a great—albeit satirical—example of the expectations many parents have of their children. At times we forget that children are not “mini adults”. Developmentally they cannot fully and maturely express all of their emotions or identify the many complex, multifaceted reasons for having these emotions. That does not mean that they are not capable of understanding each and every emotion. That also does not mean that they are not capable of learning how to better identify, make sense, and express their emotions.

One of my biggest goals in Play Therapy is to help a child gain the ability to identify and make sense of the many feelings they are having. No this is not done by handing them a worksheet with 20 feeling faces and defining each one of those faces. It is done by naming and validating feelings that occur during play, modeling appropriate ways of expressing certain feelings, and providing space to explore those feelings either verbally or through play. Often times children do not respond to talking directly about a feeling or behavior. Hitting the nail on the head can be intimidating, which leads children to close up. Through play I am coming in through the back-door. During play therapy we are not “talking about feelings”, but engaging in play-based activities where feelings and situations are free to come out in a way that is familiar and provides some distance from reality.

As a parent I encourage you to take the back-door approach when discussing feelings. Rather than going into interrogation mode when negative feelings or behaviors arise, try providing a safe space through a mutually enjoyable activity where the child may feel comfortable to let down their guard and talk. Identify how you may have felt if you were in a similar situation to help you child feel understood. Use toys, puppets, or drawing to recreate the situation that occurred so that you can assist with identifying emotions, model empathy for others, and help the child see ways they could have made different decisions.