Monthly Archives: June 2013

Child’s Play


.Today I am writing about children’s creative play. I was inspired to do so by a unique construction hanging down the stairwell that leads to my office. It was placed there a couple of weeks ago, but I have left it there because I am so fond of it. It is – as a young observer called it – “a wad of tissue on a string”. It is actually facial tissue tied with colored yarn, but he is mostly right. This construction was created by another child, and for her I think it had the meaning of exploring my spaces, taking me over aggressively but also lovingly, as she dangled it over the top of the banister and let it sink slowly down three floors to rest on the carpet of the cellar level. In the small area at the bottom of the stairs, she then imagined having an “office” of her own, claiming the wooden ledge as her “desk”. Then to clearly establish her hegemony, she carefully wrote a sign: “Please do not take this down. Thank you.” Asking me how to spell my name, she finished off her notice with the name, “Alex Harrison”.

The magic of this construction is not in its ingredients – tissue, colored yarn, maybe a little tape – but in the imagination that turned these humble household objects into a powerful narrative. These objects cannot compare with the complicated electronics that my little patients are usually so fond of. Even the other toys in my office – dolls, blocks, vehicles, etc. – do not have quite the potential of these objects. Other children agree. All of them have noticed the tangle of colored yarn and wondered what was at the bottom, marveled at the mysterious meaning of the object and its relationship to me.

The boy who referred to it as “a wad of tissue” is very adept at games on computers and i-phones, even at his young age. In spite of this, he spent a whole session with me raising up the “wad” on its yarn pulley, untangling the tangles and considering the effect of the tangles on its smooth sailing, lowering it again, discussing with me the trajectories of each lowering and wondering what was influencing it to move further to one side or the other. Considering the difficulties this child has disentangling himself from his mother and negotiating transitions and the “ups and downs” of life, I thought he and I were doing just what we needed to be doing to make him stronger.

As he and I huddled together in our explorations, I was aware of feeling happy and engaged in my work. The feeling is a kind of playfulness, a letting go of the constraints of reality and entering – with a companion – into a magical world of rainbows (colored yarn), wads of tissue (gift wrapped presents), castles in the air (three level staircase), and forbidding dungeons (the cellar at the bottom of the stairs). Of course, the real “work” lies in facing the monsters in the dungeon together (the child’s fears and problem behavior), but in order to conquer those monsters you have to find them, and you find them by creating this magic world with a trusty traveling companion.

The world of rainbows and dungeons is obviously not exclusive to child psychotherapy. That is the magic of it – it is the possession of every child. But it has to be exercised, practiced, and that means putting away the computer, the i-phone, and the television, for long enough to enter this other space stay awhile.

The little boys in the photograph of this posting are finding this play space in the dirt of the playground. The children at the preschool found it in the pirate play and in the hunt for bears. The girl in my practice found it in her creation of the “office” at the foot of my stairs and the magic wad on pulleys that led to it. When the child is developing the capacity to create this world of pretend he/she is simultaneously building an internal capacity for flexibility, for impulse control, for empathy. That is what the pediatricians and scientists tell us from their observations and experiments (Baron-Cohen, Fonagy, Slade, Winnicott, to name a few). It is also what I know from my experience.

Sometimes it is hard to explain that to parents who understandably want a “solution” to a problem behavior – a method for shaping behavior, a behavioral strategy. Of course, I understand this. But behavioral strategies that address a discrete behavior do not always generalize; they cannot grow the brain in the elemental and natural way that pretend play can do. Now, I am in favor of anything that works, so I do support good behavioral therapies. Yet, I am always aiming in my work with children for opportunities to scaffold the growth of the important developmental capacity for imaginative play, and I am always delighted when I can awaken the child in myself to join my young patients in creating a “pretend” solution of their own.


Baron-Cohen S (1994). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theories of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist EL, Target M (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of Self. New York: Other Press.

Slade A (1994). Making meaning and making believe: Their role in the clinical process, in Children at Play, Edited by Slade A, Wolff DP, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 81-107.

Winnicott DW (1971). Playing and Reality, London: Routledge.


Photograph by Ginger Gregory




Play Dates

good friendsPlay dates are the current solution in the U.S. – at least in many urban centers – to the lack of the kind of neighborhood experience in which children could gather spontaneously in back yards and play together. I am not proposing that the neighborhood situation is always ideal. In fact, I am aware of many stories of how without adult supervision children’s play can turn into bullying, exclusion, or exploitation.  But that is not the rule, and it has great advantages. For one thing, children have the chance to negotiate a common agenda without the usual structure of school or even family routine, and without adult intervention. Children learn to deal with competitive conflict between and among themselves. Children also learn to manage “empty” time or boredom when usual playmates are busy, without holding their parents responsible, since typically they are in charge of initiating arrangements with playmates. Even more, “neighborhood” play often includes children of different ages, and can teach children how to accommodate differences in competency, size, and experience. Perhaps ironically, this neighborhood spontaneous play is often replicated in good institutional care, in children’s homes. At Love and Hope, it is not unusual to see a small group of children playing soccer on the roof playground, or clustering together searching for treasures in the gravel, or other similar activities. This is harder to manage in city environments, when busy streets separate families and playmates and parents juggle busy schedules, barely managing to get home in time to get food on the table before helping with homework or putting the little ones to bed.

Often playdates offer a good alternative. Playdates are especially felicitous in the case of children who have trouble making or keeping friends. That is because a parent or other caregiver is available to scaffold the play. I often coach parents on how to do this. These are my general guidelines (Remember that the main goal of the playdate is for your child to have a positive experience) :

(1) Put yourself in charge. Do not offer to take care of the other child for an indefinite period of time. That may result in your babysitting for the other child, and your child may become fatigued or need time alone while the other child is still present. One way of safeguarding the situation is to provide transportation – “Joanie would love Rachel to come over and play. I could pick up the girls at school and drop them off at your house at around 3:00.” If your child has any vulnerability at all in peer relationships, do not invite (or allow someone else to invite) two children. Three really is a crowd. It is often best to keep the playdate short, and some younger children who have a lot of difficulty sharing may do better if you get together away from home, such as at a playground or a museum.

(2) Discuss the playdate with your child ahead of time. Make it clear to your child that, whereas you are going to take his/her preferences into account, you insist on a variety of children. That will not only establish a policy of inclusion as opposed to exclusion, but it will also help stretch your child’s friendship pool; some children get stuck in one particular friendship that may not be the best to help them grow, and you want to help them move beyond that. Also talk about your “family values” regarding guests. These may include giving the friend first choice in picking an activity or a toy, for example. Such specific rules are often better than general ones such as “be kind to your guest” because young children may find it hard to apply them and they are harder to enforce. It is also wise to discuss a few potential activities with your child before the playdate. While spontaneous play is an ideal, it is often more challenging for some children, and you want to put your child and yourself at ease by being prepared. Finally, in the case of young children, help the child decide which favorite toys that the child will have a hard time sharing should be put out of sight, and in the case of older children, talk to the child about how much time – if any – is to be spent in screen time (t.v., video, or computer games).

(3) If your child has particular challenges feeling comfortable and successful in peer relationships, then – as mentioned above – prepare ahead with activities that your child enjoys and that the guest would also be expected to like, such as simple crafts or baking or a new game. Then, if your child starts to have trouble – become irritable and non-collaborative or isolate him/herself, you can suggest something different and appealing to do. Do not hesitate to move in, in as friendly and non-anxious manner as possible if the children start to fight and seem unable to resolve it themselves. Don’t scold or correct your child in the presence of his/her friend; that is shaming and will only cause things to go further down hill. Instead, just move in with a positive attitude and change the venue, the activity, something.

Remember that your first goal is to help your child have a good time with a friend. That will motivate him/her to practice the skills and capacities that make friendships possible and gratifying.



More About Limit Setting: Disengagement


The last posting was on the subject of  how family values can be used as a way of avoiding struggles when you are trying to set limits on a child’s behavior. Another way of avoiding struggles is to disengage from the struggle before it begins or in its early stages.

Before I discuss disengagement, let me say something about why avoiding struggles is so important. When struggle patterns take hold in a family they exert a powerful influence on family life. As in the example I have used before of the family landscape, the struggle pattern becomes a thriving population center that many big roads lead to, making it easy to get there. We do not want that. Another way to think about it is that practice strengthens the neural circuits in the brain, and although I do not have scientific evidence of this, I feel convinced that when a family repeats struggle patterns, it builds struggle neural circuits in the brains of your children. We do not want that either. What we want to do is to weaken the struggle pattern population centers in the family landscape, weaken the struggle pattern neural circuits in the brain, and build up the collaborative ones. We do that by practicing collaborative patterns and avoiding the struggle patterns.

In another digression, I would like to mention a common misconception caregivers often have that  can lead them straight into a struggle. The misconception is that they “have to show the child who is in charge”. The problem is that the intention to “show the child who is in charge” easily slides into the struggle pattern. The caregiver reiterates the command, and the child repeats the opposition, and the struggle kicks into gear. A more effective way to “show the child who is in charge” in a positive sense is to demonstrate an alternative way to work together more collaboratively. At the threshold of a struggle, however, it is not easy to shift gears. That is because when people are stirred up – in a stressed state – they are more likely to slip into a lower level of organization, into activity that takes less energy and maturity. One way of preparing to exit the invitation to a struggle is to disengage.

By disengage I do not mean abandon the child. I mean instead, disengage from the struggle. That means to reflect on what is going on, look at it from a distance instead of from the middle of it. Initially, it might help to stop thinking about the issues the child is challenging you about and think about something else instead – even if that is your shopping list or what you have to do tomorrow. Then when the compelling sense of the struggle is diminished, you can return to the issues at hand but from a different perspective. The more you practice disengaging from a struggle, the more you can build those collaborative neural circuits and collaborative population centers in the landscape of your family.


Family Values

img_6893-scaled1000A subject that comes up often in my conversations with parents or other caregivers is that of values or beliefs. I bring it up here as an asset in caregivers’ endeavors to set boundaries or limits for their children. One of the great features of this asset is that – as all of know who have relatives or close friends with different political or religious persuasions from our own – you can’t argue with someone’s values or beliefs. Therefore, when caregivers establish what their family values and beliefs are, they can use them to support whatever expectations they have of their children’s behavior.

For example, suppose one of your family values is to treat guests well – with politeness and generosity. In that case, if your child has a play date and gets into a conflict with his/her friend about sharing or who gets first choice, you know exactly what your position will be. The guest gets first choice of what to play with or which piece of cake. Now, as in all cases, this depends somewhat on the context. If you have a very young child or a child who has particular difficulties with sharing, for example, you will want to prepare for the play date by putting away special toys that could generate extreme proprietary reactions. However, there is no argument. If your child tries to argue, you simply respond, “In our family, that is the way we treat guests.”

The child may object, but you do not have to explain or elaborate. That is that. Now, let me be clear. I am not advocating the enforcement of rules in a rigid authoritarian manner, so that children cannot register their complaints or different perspectives on the matter.  There are plenty of other opportunities to discuss these issues with children and many chances to listen to children’s objections or alternative points of view. What I am suggesting that one way for caregivers to avoid a struggle while trying to set a limit is to use family values as a basis for their decision.

Another time family values comes up is when siblings fight among themselves. If kindness and tolerance of differences is a value of your family (I am including children’s homes as “families”) you can also use those values to support your position in relation to the sibling conflict. If one child is criticizing the other, you can say simply, “In our family, we do not judge other people.” Or, “In our family, we do not talk to other people like that.” Sometimes, following that pronouncement, those words are enough. Other times, you have to take subsequent action, such as separating the two children or giving one or both of them a consequence.

The concept of family values is not a magic bullet, but it is important. That is because caregivers not infrequently become confused or ambivalent when challenged by the child. For example, “Why should Susie get to play with my new game when I want to go bike riding?” If the child is very persuasive or good as pressing his advantage, the caregiver might start to confuse considerations about the type of activity or the general issue of fairness with the main question – who should choose. In that case, the caregiver might hesitate, and that could lead to an argument. If, on the other hand, she has a simple rule to follow that supports her basic beliefs, she is clearer and more confident.The answer to this question might be something like, “I think you will have time to do both, but since Susie is your guest, we will play with the new game first.”

In another example, a child tells his sibling or playmate that he is stupid. The caregiver may say, “We don’t criticize others like that in our family (or home).” Even if the child who is criticizing does not retract the remark, the child who was criticized heard the caregiver pronounce the family values, and that is critically important.

In the next posting, I will talk about another issue in limit setting.