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Play Therapy for children experiencing emotional, physical, and sexual abuse

Before we begin, we want you, the reader to do a little exercise. This exercise may trigger an emotional response, so feel free to skip over this if you don't feel comfortable. Let's begin. We want you to think of an embarrassing situation you've been in and share it with a close friend. Sound easy? Okay, now we want you to think of the most painful experience you've ever had and share it with that very same friend.

Now we want you to think about how you felt after it happened. Chances are high that you might relate to some of these behaviours. Now we want you to think about a child having gone through a similar experience. Traumatic experiences for children influences and changes the way their brain develops. Following these experiences, children, and adults' trauma might show through these symptoms. When trauma is triggered, we may regress into primal states of fear, react aggressively, or become paralyzed and not be able to assess the level of threat.

Children may display the following behaviours;

  • Hyper-arousal: Increased heart rate, rapid or difficulty breathing, cold sweats, tingling, muscular tension

  • Denial

  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound

  • Hyperactivity

  • Exaggerated emotional and startle responses

  • Nightmares and night terrors

  • Abrupt mood swings: Rage reactions or temper tantrums, frequent anger or crying

  • Shame and lack of self-worth

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Panic attacks, anxiety, and phobias

  • Mental blankness or spaced-out feelings

  • Avoidance behavior: Avoiding places, moments, activities

  • Inability to love, nurture, or bond with other individuals

  • Excessive shyness

  • Diminished emotional responses

  • Inability to make commitments

  • Chronic Fatigue or very low physical energy

  • Immune system problems

  • Psychosomatic symptoms: headaches, migraines, neck and back problems, chronic pain, asthma, skin disorders, digestive problems

  • Depression and feelings of impending doom

  • Feelings of detachment, alienation, and isolation (living dead syndrome)

Development Trauma

When a child experiences trauma in their childhood years, their trauma is often referred to as developmental trauma. The way that trauma influences brain development will be different for each child and the following regions of the brain are the most likely to change following a traumatic event. The event can be extremely overwhelming to a child whose nervous system cannot mature in an age-appropriate manner. The disruption in their nervous system is often great enough to cause long-lasting changes and delays in their physical maturation, behavior, and capacity to think, handle emotions, and socialize with others even in their adult years.

If the abuse is severe and depending on the age of the child at the time of the abuse, the child’s brain structure may be physically damaged as well. Many researchers have demonstrated that trauma has the power to alter the central nervous system. It impacts how we process memory and leaves us highly reactive to any stimuli that might mimic the original experience.

The way to understand this is by looking at how the brain develops in a fetus. The reptilian brain stem grows first. This is responsible for breathing and regulating the fetus's heartbeat. It is all the basic functions that keep the fetus developing and most importantly alive. Then the limbic brain grows. Or what we call the feeling brain. This enables us to learn, form relationships with people, and develop new skills.

Lastly, the thinking brain or the neocortex grows over these two brains. It is important to know that the neocortex is underdeveloped at the time we are born. You can think of it as a brand new hard drive with no data on it.

What does trauma look like on the brain?

Scientists suggest that the following regions of the brain are the most likely to change following a traumatic event.

  • The amygdala is designed to detect and react to people, places, and things in the environment that could be dangerous. After trauma, the amygdala can become even more highly attuned to potential threats in the environment, leads a trauma victim to closely monitor their surroundings to make sure they are safe and have strong emotional reactions to people, places, or things that might be threatening or that remind them of the trauma. This hyper-vigilance to potential threats in the environment can make it hard to pay attention, go to new places, or interact with new people.

  • The prefrontal cortex helps to control the activity of the amygdala and is involved in learning that previously threatening people or places are now safe. Connections between these two parts of the brain are sometimes not as strong in people who have experienced trauma. As a result, it is not as effective at reducing amygdala reactivity to people, places, and things that are in fact safe and no longer predict danger. This can lead to persistent elevations in fear and anxiety about instances that remind children or adults of the trauma they experienced.

  • The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory. Impairments in learning and memory have been seen in people who have experienced trauma. As a result, children who experience trauma may not be able to retain information about how to tell if one situation is safe and another is dangerous, leading them to experience harmless situations as scary. For example, a child who has experienced trauma may have difficulty distinguishing between activities that are dangerous (e.g., walking down a dark alley) and safe (e.g., walking around a dark corner at home).

How Play Therapy helps Trauma victims

You may have heard of the concept of Neuroplasticity. In fact, you may have heard scientists refer to the brain as "plastic". Meaning that it changes in response to social and environmental experiences. This enables us to learn, form relationships with people, and develop new skills. Changes in the brain that happen after trauma can improve over time. This is particularly likely to happen when children experience safe, stable, and supportive environments after trauma.

Now the way to think about this is to ask what is each brain doing in your child’s head.

  • Firstly, the reptilian brain is always asking “Am I safe”?

  • Secondly, the limbic brain is always asking “am I loved”? and

  • Lastly, the thinking brain or neocortex is always asking “what can I learn from this?”

As play therapists, we create an environment so your child’s brain can answer those two questions satisfactorily because if the first two questions are not answered properly then the thinking brain goes offline until the first two questions are fully satisfied

And as those questions don’t get answered instantly. There is a lot of thought that goes into setting up the Therapy Playroom. Play is the way your child may put into words their experience. Children need to know they have an impact. That they matter and that they are heard and understood.

This is how we start the healing process towards children becoming emotionally regulated. The one thing I have learned, and continue to see in my practice is, especially so for children that have had a traumatic experience or have special educational needs is that play is their talk and toys are their words.

If you would like to speak to a qualified Play therapist to learn how your child could benefit from play therapy, click here to schedule a complimentary consultation today or take our quiz!

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