Your Therapy

Benefits of Play Therapy for Separation Anxiety

After providing virtual services during the pandemic, Your Therapy has now moved into a new office space. While we continue to offer online counselling, we are now able to offer some forms of therapy that can only be done in person. One of these is play therapy—an area where I have some special expertise. In addition, play therapy is not well understood by the general public.  In this blog I’ll explain a little about play therapy, and how it’s used to address one of the most common mental-health concerns I hear regarding young children: separation anxiety.

How to identify a child has separation anxiety 

To begin with, I should stress that all children feel some anxiety, and separation anxiety is normal in very young children. Seeing your toddler in tears when you go out the door can really tug at your heart, but children are usually able to regulate these emotions fairly quickly. Like other mental health challenges, separation anxiety rises to the level of a disorder when the symptoms are severe, persist over time and significantly interfere with ordinary daily activities. A few symptoms include: clinging to parents, extreme and severe crying, refusal to do things that require separation and physical illness, such as headaches or vomiting. Older children might also refuse to go to school, refuse participate in school activities or voice unrealistic and lasting fears that something bad will happen to them or their parent or caregiver.

Play Therapy can help children express themselves

The obvious challenge when offering mental health care to young children is that they’re often unable to process their own emotions, or articulate their problems to adults. However, a trained therapist can use playtime to gain insights into the child’s internal life. The play can take many forms, including make-believe with toys, building blocks or art. By reflecting their actions and asking questions, we can then help the child explore difficult emotions and learn coping mechanisms.

For example, I once worked with a child in junior kindergarten with extreme separation anxiety, who’d just sit facing the wall, refusing to participate in any activities. During play therapy, the child often played with a stuffed lion, having it hide and then attack. Over our sessions, I talked about feelings of hiding and wanting to be alone, and helped her understand that some things are scary, and that it’s okay to tell people when you’re scared. Gradually, she was able to deal with her fears, and participate at school.

Play Therapy has a high success rate to help kids overcome anxiety

In more clinical terms, the process of play allows young children to verbalize and normalize difficult feelings. The therapist can then validate these feelings, help the child to accept them, and learn how to keep the feelings from taking control. We don’t address the situation—rather we help them understand, accept and process the feelings that come from it. This is not a quick process, with instant breakthroughs. Play therapy is slow and gradual, taking multiple sessions. However, it also has a very high rate of success, as children learn to understand complicated life situations, and develop the skills needed to thrive outside the home.

Your Therapy is a safe, welcoming, counselling therapy practice that offers confidential, mental health assessment and treatment in the Greater Toronto Area. Thanks for reading and, as always, please feel free to reach out with questions about mental health therapy in Toronto.

Anu Chahauver is the Director & Social Worker at Your Therapy, providing Individual, Couple and Family Therapy.

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