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?
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).
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.
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.