Why Am I Having So Many Power Struggles with My Child Right Now?

If your family is anything like mine, you have seen an increase in power struggles with your kids.  These struggles seem to go on all day long about everything.  Please brush your teeth… “no.”  Please eat your lunch… “not gonna happen.”  Please play all day in your p.j’s while eating chocolate and ice cream… “I don’t want to.”  Wait, what?  Are you just saying no to say no?

It certainly feels that way.

With the perilous situation of the pandemic we are living day after day with very little control or say in how our lives look.  We are constantly provided information about death, dying, disease, with little sprinkles of hope and the expectation that we continue life with some structure and normalcy.

This means, as parents, we just don’t have a lot to offer our kids in the form of something to look forward to, something to be happy about, or a light at the end of the tunnel.  Even thinking about going back to school is so complex and wrought with danger and anxiety.  I think about my child spending hours a day with a teacher who is terrified of getting sick, who feels like they are being sacrificed, who is anxious, angry, and preoccupied and I think maybe this isn’t something to look forward to.  Will there just be more power struggles?

Just like us, children have lost a lot of choices and they are responding by refusing.  It’s clear that we might all be grasping for something to control.  Moods are shifting rapidly.

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So, what happens when we feel like we’ve lost control?  Often, we try to find control in any area that it might present itself, maybe by increasing the amount of exercise we’re getting, monitoring our diets or our budgets, cleaning the house, rearranging furniture, or buying new stuff.  I’m sure, if you thought about it, you could come up with a list of ways you’ve tried to feel better by controlling something you could control.  Let’s do that now.  How have you tried to regain a feeling of control?

Losing control feels scary.  It’s unpredictable.  It means we have to constantly be ready to react or respond to keep ourselves physically and emotionally safe because we don’t know what’s coming.  This is called hypervigilance and it is exhausting.  Have you noticed a feeling of exhaustion just in trying to maintain your household?  You certainly aren’t alone.  

I think we can recognize that these power struggles are inevitable – they will happen in small ways and in big ways.  They are probably a reflection of how your child is feeling.  Small power struggles might just give your child a sense of control, they are choosing to follow the routine not agreeing with you that they have to.  But the big power struggles, those might be more about wanting to feel safe, to feel hope.  They could be an outlet to find a reason to cry or yell and feel the anger, sadness, and frustration that comes with day to day living right now.

Coupled with the fact that children already have less control of their lives than adults and are experiencing hypervigilance and exhaustion, how do we help them have a sense of control? 

Thinking about other ways to allow your child to have a feeling of control can be helpful.  Since we are the adults we can try and guide healthier ways of feeling that sense of control.  We can even have a conversation about how having a choice and some control makes us feel better when things are unfair and unpredictable.  Just like you might have found ways to feel in control at times, what could your child do?    

Here are a few suggestions.  There are so many once you get started brainstorming and your child probably already does some things on their own (feel free to add them to the comments).  

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You can –

  1. Set times when your child/children can choose what movie or show to watch
  2. Allow them to have choices about what is for dinner and let them help
  3. Take care of an animal
  4. If you are one of those people who use cleaning to feel some control, offer this experience to your child.  If it’s not a chore but is explained more as an activity that helps you feel better, they might be interested in trying some cleaning or organizing themselves as long as it’s their choice.
  5. Creativity!  Can they create something with boxes, paint, clay, food, pinecones, sticks…?
  6. Find bugs, catch them or rescue them
  7. Games – they can choose the game.  Think of games where it takes strategy and they can visually see their decisions and results (Connect Four, Risk, Checkers, Don’t Break the Ice, Jenga)
  8. Puzzles
  9. Music, let them create or play music that helps them feel better.  If they’re older encourage them to talk about their music.
  10. Blocks, build a tower and then make it crash
  11. Dress-up or trying on clothes
  12. If they play a sport, practicing that sport
  13. Build a fort
  14. Books/reading – choose your own adventure!
  15. Plan their ideal vacation or share what they want to do “after the virus”
  16. Make a volcano

I know it’s frustrating to have to be in this situation with your child or children.  Most parents don’t enjoy power struggles or the way it feels to be at constant odds with one another.  Sometimes just stepping away and refusing to engage in the struggle can bring the emotion to the forefront.  The most important thing is to allow the feelings to exist and to provide the empathy that we all need a way to have some sense of control right now.

Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®


My child has experienced something awful in their young life – how do I know if it is affecting them?

People tell me all of the time that their young child or baby doesn’t remember … their painful medical interventions, a car accident, the death or loss of a loved one, the verbal or physical fighting between parents/caregivers or witnessed violence.  Even though it makes the conversation uncomfortable, I always have to tell them that their child probably does remember.  It’s really common for adults to believe that children who do not speak, cannot remember.  This is probably because their ability to form verbal memory has not developed and they will not speak about the event(s).  They will, however, act it out in a lot of different ways.

So, what are common things to look for in my young child, if they have been affected?

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They might experience trouble with bodily functions.

  • Does your child struggle with sleep?  This might include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.  It might also include nightmares or night terrors.  
  • Have you noticed continued challenges with feeding or eating – hoarding food, holding food in the mouth for long periods of time, binge eating, refusing to eat?
  • Are you or have you experienced prolonged challenges with potty training or regular bathroom use?

Children who have experienced scary events might

also show delays in their development.  

  • Has your child struggled with crawling or walking, running into things or frequently getting hurt?
  • Have people mentioned that it’s difficult to understand your child, even if you feel like you can understand them just fine?
  • Does your child cling to you instead of playing with other children (even after having some time to feel comfortable)?  Do they struggle more than typical in play with others?  Are teachers or caregivers concerned about their behavior?  Are you concerned?

They express noticeable challenges with their emotions.

  • Do they cry more than seems normal?  Are they hard to comfort (refuse hugs, throw things at you, hurt themselves or things they care about)?
  • When they do have a temper tantrum does it seem like it lasts longer or is more intense than other kids their age?  They might really struggle with calming themselves down.
  • Have you noticed they are usually angry or easily irritated?  Or are they often very sad, really shy, or super worried about things all of the time?
  • Maybe they seem really distant or are hard to connect with?  You are trying to play with them, but they turn away or they make the play really difficult to follow and get upset easily.

You notice interesting play or body reactions.

  • Kids will use play to express what their bodies are feeling.  Since the memories are not verbal, they live in your child’s body as physical reminders of what happened.  Play could include aspects of the scary event and how it made their body feel.  This might include increased hyperactivity that cannot be explained.  It might also look like spacing out/tuning out during play or sudden mood changes in play.
  • You might also notice changes in your child or their body when you drive past the place of the accident or visit a medical office, when they hear raised voices, or when they approach the time of year when the event occurred (this is especially true if it happened near a holiday where there are a lot of sensory experiences – smells, sights, sounds).
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I know that it is easy to look at our young children and see the behavioral challenges, hoping for a solution in a book or on a blog.  Sometimes our young children have experienced something that impacted the way their bodies respond to us and to the environment.  They are not fully in control of how they are responding, and we cannot hope that enough discipline, sticker charts, or talking to’s will change that.  

  I also know, that being a parent to a young child who experienced something scary or painful, means that you probably also experienced the event.  You feel the pain, the fear, the trauma too.  There are things that are hard to remember and painful to feel, even today.  The thought that your child might feel these things too can be overwhelming.  It’s easy to get stuck here.  But there is treatment available.  Mental health therapy for young children who have experienced scary things can be helpful when we work with the parent and child together to help resolve the way they are responding and the way that they are feeling.  Consider contacting a mental health specialist who is trained in early childhood mental health and trauma for the support and treatment needed. 

Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®

UpliftME Attachment-Based Therapy

How Young Children are Responding to Stay-At-Home Directives and Why

Right now we are all stuck in our homes.  Families are stuck together, at the mercy of each and every high and low.  We face tremendous grief, loss, and trauma – all of us.  And, one of the hardest parts of this is the adult desire to control what their children are experiencing.  I have heard things such as we “don’t want to ruin their innocence,” “they are fine because they’re getting everything they need,” or “they’re too young for this to matter.”  There is also the constant conversation around maintaining previous schedules and activities, to the point of absolute panic.  Adults seem to want their children to continue on with regular schedules and activities as though nothing has changed.  In our defense, as adults, a lot of our employers want the same things from us.  Keep working, keep providing, focus on what needs to be done.  Go on without acknowledging what it means emotionally to lose physical contact with the world outside of your home, or to see, live, and hear unbelievable and consistent stories of death and insufficient protection.  Maybe it feels like if we let it in (the pain, the anxiety, the sadness), it will eat us alive.  There will be no way out, and so we try to keep ourselves and our children from getting too close.

But in truth our children have lost so much, often without the understanding of why.  We could try to maintain their innocence, but the fact is they are living through a once in a hundred years pandemic and we can’t change that.  As much as we try to carry on with things that are interesting and important, constantly redirecting them from the meltdown that is popping it’s head out, they know.  They know they have lost their friends.  They know they’ve lost the field trips, field days, and birthday parties that were promised.  They do not have the predictability of childcare or school, the relationships they’ve established with teachers and caregivers.  Many have lost physical contact with grandparents, cousins, and neighbors.  They are grieving just the same as you and I.  And, they also know that you are feeling things too.

More About Feelings…

When we tell our children that things aren’t that bad, but put out an energy of panic, fear, and anxiety, it is unsettling.  They might think, “why is mommy lying to me?”  This incongruence of how we feel versus what we say can create distrust and fear in young children, thus creating behavioral issues, nightmares, and meltdowns.  As hard as it might be, it is important that adults think about what they are feeling and what they are telling their children.  It is perfectly fine to spare the details, but you could explain that you are feeling scared because there are a lot of people getting sick or that you are angry that you have to stay home and can’t go to work.  It feels much safer for children to have a name for the feeling and an understanding that you’re doing your best to keep them safe even when you are feeling scared.

Magical Thinking

Developmentally, young children up to the age of 6 or 7, make sense of the world through magical thinking – the belief that we have control of our world through our thoughts, fears, and wishes.  It is difficult to know for sure with non-verbal children, but the older the child is within this stage, the more likely they are to believe that they literally did something to create social distancing or other situations that come up daily.  They might show defiance out of shame and guilt. This thinking often does not follow the logical patterns we as adults might use to make sense of things.  If we only allow our adult kind of thinking, we will miss the important internal experience of the child. That is why it’s important to talk to kids about how they are feeling and why.  What they tell us is based on their understanding of what happened and might sound more like a story (or like magic!)  It’s important for kids to have the freedom and safety to explain their reasoning with the understanding that, however crazy it might sound to us, it is developmentally appropriate. When we do this we can support our children in understanding that none of this is their fault.  

(For more information – https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/ages-stages-how-children-use-magical-thinking/)

Photo by Mitch Kesler on Pexels.com

The Art of Emotional Regulation

One of the most important things we do when we respond to a young child’s emotions is called co-regulation.  Young children rely on caregivers to help them regulate their emotions until they can learn to consistently self-regulate.  Even children who seem to have mastered self-regulation might require additional support with co-regulation right now.  It is not uncommon for children to show some regression in times of stress or trauma.  This could be why it is so difficult to work from home right now – the child who used to be able to play alone and easily complete tasks independently is now by your side all of the time.

The younger the child, the more likely it is that they will need an adult to help them regulate big emotions. This is so important for us adults at this time, because it is challenging to regulate ourselves.  Never, in our lifetimes have we been asked to know how to maintain a healthy emotional response during a pandemic.  Most of us typically try very hard not to show our own meltdowns to our children.  But, when do we melt down?  Because it seems like we all need space for this emotional purging right now, for our own mental health and for the health of our relationships.  

Tap Out

One of the strategies I have talked most about with other parents and my husband is “tapping out.”  This is the recognition that you need to get out of the ring for a little bit.  You might need to go cry in your car, go pound out the anger in a walk or workout, or call a friend for connection.  If you are living with another adult, it might be worth it to talk with each other about how you could do this.  When and how do you ask each other for a break?  I know that there might be limitations to this idea due to work schedules, trust and safety, or being the only adult in the room.  Creatively thinking, you might have to think about the times that are hardest – for me I’ve recognized Fridays are very hard for me and my daughter.  Plan to take things easier during those times, strategically incorporate screen time or activities that have less power struggles.  It is ok, actually it is necessary, for us adults to give ourselves space to feel what we are feeling.  If we can’t allow our feelings space, they will come out at other times and in ways that we didn’t intend.  They could even be causing some of the problems you’re facing with our loved ones.

So as we carry on, lets recognize it isn’t an easy time for anyone. Children are relying on us to provide safety and support, and this can be exhausting.  Giving space for feelings, even if they are born out of magical thinking, will help tremendously.  Being honest about our own needs and asking for help from each other is significant.  If we see an increase in conversations about feelings between ourselves and our children, we are probably doing something right.

Written by, April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E, UpliftMEchildtherapy.com

How Can I Support My Child During Scary Times? Helping Your Young Child Through the Coronavirus

Anyone who has stumbled onto social media or out into a supermarket lately has noticed the level of panic in our communities is rising.  The minute you turn on the television there is dramatic music and TV journalists telling us about the latest in the “coronavirus outbreak.”  Our children have started to notice and some of them are really panicking too.  

I recently realized that maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to how much fear and anxiety the world was feeling.  Then I started to notice the posts and discussion around toilet paper and how you cannot find it anywhere.  A trip to a major discount store and the grocery store recently proved this to be true in my community.  Anxiety and panic can be contagious, and we do interesting things when they take hold. 

While I was at this major discount store, with huge carts, I noticed many people filling their carts to the brim with hand soap and water (no paper products because that aisle was empty).  Just being in the store gave me a sense of breathlessness, like something heavy was sitting on my chest.  One woman in particular had a full cart and two young children.  I observed her politely arguing with one of the employees about how she did not understand how they could be out of a certain product.  This employee explained that he could not control what was available at this point and encouraged her to consider visiting at times when they re-stock the store.  While I felt a great deal of empathy for both this mother and the employee as they navigated the discussion of anxiety, fear, and lack of control, I wondered too about how these young children experienced this moment.

It made me wonder how we ease this tension for our children since their level of control and understanding is even less than our own.  While we as adults can watch the news and talk to our neighbors, our children are often reliant on us to set the stage for what they know and understand.  They get this information from us, not only from what we say, but also from what they can see and feel in our interactions.  When I describe my body’s response to being in the store as breathless and heavy, at least I have some context to why it feels that way.  But what does a child feel and understand?

  One of the best ways we can support our young children through this time of anxiety and fear is to recognize our own reactions.  Am I feeling anxious?  Scared?  How do I cope with these feelings?  Is it in a way that creates calm or do I join in the spiral of panic and anxiety around me?  Sometimes, in my home at times when anxiety is high, or stress is skyrocketing I find myself sharing less information with my daughter.  I use shorter sentences and give her very little information.  I move quickly to avoid having to sit down and really feel the feeling and, as a result, she follows me around asking more and more questions.  If I don’t stop and realize what is happening, I become grumpy and short with her, which simply increases her level of freak out and creates moments of poor behavior or a total melt down.  She becomes scared because every piece of this interaction is giving her the message that things aren’t ok.  I need to calm down and help answer her questions.  I also need to be able to let her know that I am feeling stressed.

We can practice how to do this with the coronavirus news.  The following is a basic tool to use when speaking with your child.  You will need to begin by answering the following questions and writing down your responses.

  • What do you notice about your own reaction to the coronavirus news?  (It could be that you are feeling anxiety and panic, or maybe it is just another news story that is interesting and making you think about possible changes to your day-to-day life).
  • Why do you think this is your response?  (Are you afraid of something?  Why are you feeling ok about things?)
  • Where do you feel it in your body?  Describe what is happening (i.e. my heart is beating really fast, my head hurts, my stomach is upset, my shoulders are relaxed but my mind is thinking about what to do if schools shut down).
  • What do you call this feeling?  

Going through these simple questions can help you understand and share this information with your child.  This is important information.  When we can share it, it helps to normalize what your child is probably feeling too and lets them know that you are actually ok, safe, and in control of the current moment.  

When you sit down to talk with your child you might say something as easy as “There are a lot of people talking about getting sick right now.  It’s on the news and everyone is thinking about how to stay safe and healthy.  I noticed that I’ve been watching a lot of TV and I’m feeling a little bit worried about getting sick too.  I’m having a hard time sitting down, my legs just want to walk and move, and my tummy feels upset.  That’s what happens to me sometimes when I’m feeling worried or anxious.”

This might prompt your child to ask more questions, especially when they are having a difficult time calming their own bodies.  In order to help them it is important that you are able to calm your body.  If you are feeling like you just can’t stop the anxious feelings, stop the physical responses you are having, or feel that no matter what you do you will not be ok, it might be time to seek the support of a mental health profession.  It’s ok to admit this.  Many people struggle with anxiety.  I often see children struggle with anxiety when their parents struggle because of the stronghold it can have on us and the way we view the world.  

  Now that you have shared your own answers to the questions, ask your child to answer them.  Try not to focus on the information you have all heard, focus on the feeling/s.  It is tempting to try and distract them from the feeling with statements of fact or reassurance that they will be ok.  You don’t need to do this to help them feel better – help them understand what they are feeling and what you are feeling.  

Here are some ideas for children to express these feelings:

  • Draw the feeling, answer what color it is, what shape, does it have a temperature or feel a certain way?
  • Have your child name the feeling.  This could be something like Bob or Worry Worm.
  • You could even tell a story about the feeling now that it has a name, description, and place in the body.
  • Practice mindfulness activities like filling up your whole tummy with air and pushing it out like you’re blowing out a birthday candle – then notice how you feel.  Or there’s my current favorite, pretend you are a sticker stuck to the floor.  Notice how your body feels when it is stuck to the floor.

Now you have some tools for managing your child’s fear and anxiety around this recent global upset.  I do believe you can do this.  You can help your child manage this feeling; help keep them safe and healthy too.

For additional supports I am now offering on-line therapy to parents and children in Colorado. Please call to get started: 720-273-1007.

Written by: April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E©


Play! Please Play With Me!!! Why Your Child Needs Play and What to Do About It

I can’t tell you how many times a day I hear this statement from my own child.  It’s definitely challenging for me to think about how to give her the amount of play she is requesting, and obviously guilt provoking when I play with other people’s children all day, but don’t have time to play with her.

This weekend, I felt pulled by the obligations of running a household and playing with my daughter.  Who would buy the groceries, cook dinner, and do the dishes if I took the time to play?  These competing demands can literally squash a sense of feeling successful as a partner, parent, and generally up-kept person – or maybe that’s just me.

As I struggled to think about how to organize the day in a way to meet every single perceived demand, my husband stepped in and offered some advice.  He has heard me talk (probably ad nauseam) about the importance of playing with children.  So, he suggested I play with our daughter and took the household expectations off the table (they still had to be done some way or another, but by having placed play above all else he allowed me to do so as well).  

After visiting the new office that I am currently getting ready for clients, we came home and played.  We played dress up with princess dresses, wands, superhero capes and masks, and even dressed up the cat!  She guided me through a beautiful play scenario where her toy cat was able to stay at a play date while the mom (Wonder Woman!) went to the beach.  I don’t know about where you are, but I am in Colorado in mid-February, so a trip to the beach sounded A ma Zing!  Spending time at friend’s houses without mom or dad is a something she has been emotionally processing with friends at school with talks of playdates on the weekends.  In true fashion (usually it takes a few times for the play to be resolved), she played this scenario out 5 or 6 times before we moved to the next activity.

So, why would I want to focus on play?  What is the importance that my husband understood and granted permission for?  Most importantly, why should it matter to you as a parent?

Play is the language of childhood.  If you ask any early childhood teacher, therapist, or even recreation provider (i.e. dance instructor), they will tell you this.  Children need play to understand the world.  They also tell us their experiences through their play and what is going on inside of their heads.  When I spent an hour playing dress up and playing a mother at the beach, my daughter was able to communicate her desire for a play date without me and also to think about what that would be like for her.    

She will often become “the mommy” and will tell her sad children that she’s sorry she is too busy to play, but she has to … do dishes, cook dinner, or is just too busy in general.  Ouch to this one!  But I will allow her to play it out without rescuing or arguing that I do play with her because she does have to figure out how to manage the feelings that come up when the object of her desired play interaction either can’t or won’t play with her.  Disappointment is inevitable and giving her the space to experience it in a setting that she controls also allows her to try out different responses and/or experience the different directions things can go.  It allows her to let the stuffy who is her “child” feel angry, feel sad, cry, whine, or find something else to do.  It also allows her to begin to experience some empathy (putting herself in the shoes of another person) on the part of the “mom.”  She is choosing to play the mom in this situation and is managing the big emotions of the “child”.  Isn’t this what we all want our children to know, to learn, and to practice – problem solving, coping with big emotions, and managing conflict?  How amazing is it to think that they could learn this through their play, and we can watch it happen?

We also recently experienced a death in the family and although my daughter presented to us that she was not upset when we told her, we noticed she started throwing herself onto the floor dramatically.  She did this several times and my initial wonder was whether or not she was tired.  But when I simply stated, “you’re falling on the floor,” she began saying “I’m your grandma and I’m dead, you have to come and visit me.”  I agreed to follow this play rather than make a statement about how she can’t say things like that or how upsetting that statement was.  I instead said, “I’m visiting you – and you are dead?” at which point, she would awaken and say she’s ok.  It wasn’t a close family member who passed, certainly not her grandmother, but what I understood about her play was her understanding and concern of the ever-present possibility that someone she loves could die or be gone forever.  She was able to process death in this scenario without the permanence of losing her grandmother.

Now, I know that these might sound like dramatic incidents of play, but they really are things that happen every day.  The question is how can you begin to see your child’s play and begin to understand what they are managing or communicating?

First, allow your child to lead you in play if you can.  I promise you aren’t giving up your status as the adult in charge when you do this.  You can still set limits around safety and remind them of household rules.  It is amazing to witness the worlds, the scenarios, and even the dialogue your child can create.  Sit back and be wowed by who your child is and have fun too! It’s ok to join them in this space.  They will appreciate you trying to understand them.

Second, simply just reflecting what you are seeing or hearing can be so helpful to your child.  I know it’s often difficult for us adults to get down on the floor and really get into the play with a million things bouncing around in our heads.  Even if playing is difficult, sharing what you are seeing or asking basic questions is enough to join the play.  You might say, “The mom is going to the beach while you stay with a friend?”  This allows you to be in the moment with your child.  It expresses that you see them and that you are here with them.  It also models for your child how to be reflective because they will need to think about the statements you are making, and this promotes cognitive development and problem solving.

Third, attachment.  I know that almost all of my blogs will mention this word and that’s because I think it is so important it should be mentioned at every opportunity.  When you play with your child you are teaching them how to be in a relationship.  You are making eye contact, smiling, and sharing in a conversation.  It’s the back and forth of a conversation, or even passing a ball between you that builds the brain networks needed for a healthy self-esteem and general understanding of what a relationship looks like.  You have the opportunity to set the stage for a lifetime of how your child feels they deserve to be treated, not just by you but by friends, future partners, future employers.  By playing with your child you are building the foundation of their future relationships.  If that isn’t powerful enough to put the dishes aside, I’m not sure what is.  Most parents I have met, and I’ve met a lot of parents, want their children to have good relationships and a happy future.  I’m sure you feel the same.

Last, don’t take your child so literally.  When children communicate through play they are not speaking, not the way you and I do.  This is not a linear/logical conversation, it is primarily metaphorical.  When children get into a play scenario where they are working through some things, they are playing out what scares them, what worries them, or what is confusing to them.  They might repeat the play scenario multiple times before moving on to something new.  And, the majority of their play will not be an expression of greater processing, but just plain having fun and learning – and who doesn’t love that?!?  

Hopefully you’ve learned a few things about your child’s play and feel motivated to spend more time watching their play, reflecting on their play, and getting down there to play with them.  If you notice play that is consistently coming up over and over or creates a sense of panic and dysregulation in your child, you might consider contacting a play therapist.  Consider this especially if you are also noticing consistent challenges with sleep, separation, excessive worry or fear, being easily upset by certain noises/touches/smells/or places, or emotional outbursts or meltdowns.  You might also consider this if you experienced a difficult childhood or relationship with your parent growing up, and the thought of playing with your child leaves your brain spinning.

A parent-child play therapist would help your child process the disturbing or upsetting material while helping you support your child, learn how to play, and build a trust that you can handle these big emotions and all of the play your child can dish out.  You are your child’s best support, teacher, and foundation provider.  You can do this, and your child will, no doubt, benefit from your efforts.    

For more information on the importance of play:



Written by April Galligan, LCSW IMH-E@