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Navigating COVID-19: What does it mean to be a play therapist?

Zaheera Seedat - Educational Psychologist


As a newly qualified therapist, I am often struck by the depth of meaning held by the therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the child. If one has not experienced this personally, it can be hard to understand, and it can be challenging to illustrate the role that therapy can play in a child’s life. Allowing a child to experience being in the same place, at the same time, receiving one-on-one attention every week can allow for consistency and validation that provides the opportunity to feel safe, secure, and valued.

At JPCCC, we often work with children who come from challenging and complex backgrounds. They frequently experience instability or trauma, and may have parents who are themselves overwhelmed. The parents may find it difficult to think of and understand their child's feelings. This is when our jobs as therapists become essential - to provide a different experience for a child, and a space where their emotional experiences can be processed.

I think it is useful to begin with explaining, “What is play therapy?” As adults use words to communicate their feelings, children use play to express their fantasies, anxieties, and defences. Melanie Klein was one of the first pioneers who encouraged children to do this. As children played, she would make interpretations based on their play by gaining insight into their internal worlds. This technique of Klein’s has evolved into what is known commonly today as non-directive or child centred play therapy. This approach allows the child the freedom to play as he/she chooses. In this way, the child is able to express themselves and the therapist can identify and reflect a child’s thoughts and feelings allowing them to be accepted. This in turn, allows the child to deal with their feelings and thoughts. The child therefore, has an experience of a person who is able to hold their difficult feelings and have them acknowledged which is an unusual experience for many children.

As we entered the COVID-19 Pandemic, this therapeutic relationship for many children was initially disrupted. This called for alternative ways of thinking about our clients and how we could maintain this crucial relationship with them. Whether it was through check-in calls, working with the parents, or online therapy, it was important for therapists to reach out to their child clients. While this shift brought about much anxiety for therapists, parents, and children it was necessary to make it known to the child that they are being held in the therapist’s mind. This is especially true during this global trauma. As with any trauma, many feelings, thoughts, and worries resurface; and for a child these are amplified, raising concerns about friends and family. So just as our lives as adults have been turned upside down, so have the children’s - there are so many changes happening around them. We see there is a significant disruption into the routine of their lives where they are no longer going to school, seeing their grandparents, seeing their friends and possibly, their therapists. And for our already traumatised clients, these uncertainties trigger many anxieties based on their past experiences. With news streaming into their homes about COVID-19, the death toll and new big words like “lockdown”, “social distancing”, “masks”, “sanitiser”, “flatten the curve”. These are all confusing and worrying times for any child, let alone who has experienced a past trauma thus giving rise to more anxieties. In this unsettling time, it is then necessary for a child to have a consistent space so that there can be one thing in their life that feels safe and stable for them.

Therefore, as a therapist, one enters into a unique relationship with a child. Whilst this relationship feels freer for the child, the therapist holds much responsibility. The therapist offers something different for a child, therapy offers an experience – an experience which a child is able to hold on to, attach to, internalise and negotiate with. The therapist allows the child to use them, to become angry with them and express how they truly feel. The child is provided with unique and containing experiences where their fantasises are explored. The child learns that their thoughts and feelings are not only acknowledged but accepted as well.

A Note to Therapists: It is important for a therapist to remember that in this traumatic and ever-changing time, we need to make sure we are looking after ourselves. Therapists are also human beings - going through a traumatic time along with everyone else in the world. However, therapists hold a greater responsibility to the children they see for therapy.

If we ourselves are not contained and coping in this time, we will not be able to navigate these challenging times with our clients. It is therefore crucial what we practice self-care to ensure we have the capacity to fulfill this important role to our child clients.

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