| Family First Feature |

Be Your Kid’s Therapist

Play therapist Michal Burnham teaches parents how to do simple play therapy on their own


Let’s play a word-association game. When I say “therapy,” what picture comes to mind? The cynical among us (guilty as charged) may be visualizing a softly lit room, a deep couch, and a therapist with intense eyes staring at us, trying to penetrate the depths of our souls.

Not really?

Okay, next round: Let’s try play therapy. Here, even the cynics among us relax, picturing young children, Playmobil, dolls, and markers. Still, this is taking place in a clinic (with possibly a hefty sum forked over at the end of  the session).

Now take the kids, the toys, and the drawing implements, (sorry, not the check) and transplant them to your living room. With you as the therapist. Sound impossible? Michal Burnham MA, guidance counselor, parenting mentor, ACT, and play therapist living in Petach Tikvah, is trying to change that.

Michal, who studied play therapy in Bar-Ilan University, is building on what she learned by teaching parents the principles of play therapy. The idea is revolutionary but simple: Instead of paying a professional for a session once a week, why not have the parent, who’s with the child all the time and so much more available for the spillover, do the work instead?

“Psychologists today agree that working with parents is the quickest, most direct, and straightforward way of helping children,” Michal says. While it’s true a professional may be more skilled, the parent is the one who will actually be there when the child has a meltdown and refuses to go into the shower.

“When a parent knows how to handle her child’s power struggle, contain and accept his strong feelings, and can set boundaries without engaging in conflict, that’s where the real therapeutic work takes place,” she says.

In a series of workshops, she teaches parents how they can utilize focused playtime with their children to help them flourish.

Parent’s Place

It isn’t as simple as plunking the Lego down on the floor and sitting down with our kids (though there’s no underestimating that either!).  And if the child is suffering from trauma or serious emotional issues, the parent-as-therapist wouldn’t replace therapeutic work with a psychologist or qualified mental health professional. But there are times when a child is exhibiting emotional difficulties that seem to call for professional intervention,  where the parent, with proper professional guidance, can do the work with the child herself.

“The idea is that rather than the child working with a professional in what can be a long process,” explains Michal, “the parent works with the professional on behalf of their child. This involves a much shorter time with the therapist herself, as a parent doesn’t actually get therapy from the professional, it’s more like a tutorial to learn the principles of play therapy.”

She qualifies though, that parents who want to provide this kind of therapeutic experience for their child need to be emotionally centered and available for their children. When parents come to her, interested in starting the process of helping their children, she always clarifies that they have to have the emotional space for this (i.e., that they aren’t experiencing their own emotional overwhelm), and they must be open to strengthening their relationship with their child, making change if necessary.

“Make it fun. Bring a snack,” says Michal. She shares an account of the time she ran a group in a special-ed kindergarten. The children’s teacher sat on her chair, shoulders tight and back rigid, and Michal could see there was no way she was ready to let go and join in the work she wanted to do with the group.

“What do you like in your coffee?” she asked the teacher. After that, each time she came to lead a group session, she’d first prepare the teacher a coffee. So, Keurig before kiddy time.

Parents need to do whatever it takes to get themselves relaxed, so they have room to contain their children’s experiences and whatever they choose to bring up during the play session.

What role does play have in our kids’ lives? Children live in two worlds, Michal explains. There’s the world we see and are part of, “get up, get dressed, go to school, do your homework, go to bed.” Then there’s the world of the child’s imagination, where he fantasizes about how he would like things to be. Through play, a child bridges those two worlds and opens a window to his inner landscape, affording us a view of how he feels about his experiences and how the events of his day are filtered through his mind.

Recognizing Our Limits

Parents sometimes think they can “fix” their child’s problems. But Michal tells parents to imagine the child in session as a film director, and the parents as the actors. The child is in charge, and he leads the scene as he sees fit. As parents, we aren’t there to teach or to change, but simply to be there and share in his experience.

When we show the child we’re willing to be present, to reflect and validate their experiences, they feel comfortable opening up. We’ll gradually gain a window into their inner world and can then determine what we can do to help them better manage their reality.

ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy, mirrors the approach we want to have while trying to help our children. It emphasizes accepting what’s happening rather than trying to control it. The premise is that the first step in dealing with issues is simply accepting and agreeing to feel our lack of control.

It’s harder than it sounds — we desperately want to feel in control and try hard to avoid the panicked sensation lack of control brings us. But when we allow ourselves to simply be, to look the situation in the eye and acknowledge it, with whatever accompanying emotions it may be bringing along — while admitting we cannot necessarily solve it — we suddenly find the intensity of our emotions waning and a new clarity dawning.

If the idea sounds familiar to frum ears, it’s because this is emunah and bitachon language. We aren’t in control; we never were. And when we admit that and let go, we ultimately wind up calmer and in a better place.

Same for our kids. While we may wish to charge in and solve their problems, we can’t. But once we’ve made peace with our emotions and accepted them, we can reach that equilibrium that allows us to connect with our children and show them we’re willing to be there, wherever they are, in the quiet, the pain, the confusion, and that we don’t think any less of them for their feelings, as difficult and uncomfortable as they may be.

Children are small; their emotional capacity is small, too. When a parent is there and willing to be part of the child’s experience, we lend him some of our emotional capacity and his container gets bigger.

But just like two pieces of metal sitting together need to be welded, for the parent to help the child expand his capacity for feeling difficult emotions, there needs to be a relationship in place. Once the parent establishes that relationship, then when he’s there with the child, he expands the child’s capacity to feel difficult emotions.

Behind the Behavior

There are several personality types that show up often in this type of work:


The People Pleaser

Sari comes home each day from kindergarten and tells her mother she’s hungry. Mom is surprised; she sends Sari off each day with a fruit and a snack, in addition to a sandwich. When she asks Sari if she eats her snack, she just shrugs. But after some gentle prodding, Sari confesses that Rivky asks her for her snack each day, and Sari just doesn’t have the gumption to say no, even though she winds up hungry.

We all know kids like Sari. They may be easier in some way than their hotheaded siblings — they’re not the ones throwing tantrums — but they’re the ones with no backbone, who are desperate to please their friends, who need to check what half the class is doing before they can make simple decisions.

How do we help children develop confidence and inner strength? While inborn factors and personality certainly play a role as well, there’s still a lot we can do. When we help children accept themselves, all the parts of themselves, even the feelings they don’t want to feel, they can flourish.

When a child is busy repressing difficult feelings, all her energy is channeled into the constant conflict to get rid of her uncomfortable emotions. She feels bad and unworthy for feeling what she feels, and these negative feelings make her more likely to be a good candidate for others to prey on her.

By contrast, when we give her room to be, when we legitimize how she feels, when we explain that her difficult feelings don’t make her bad, we help her feel seen on the deepest level. When a child feels her parents accept her fully as she is, her sense of self becomes stronger, and consequently, her resilience and self-confidence are boosted too. When Sari realizes that Sari is a wonderful person, she can grow confidently into her own identity.

Play is a wonderful time to help the child achieve acceptance of his feelings. We should try to reflect his feelings back to him, giving off a sense of acceptance. For example, replace “Behave! The baby is small and fragile!” with “It’s hard for you that Mommy had a baby. You wish there was no one else taking up Mommy’s time. Sometimes you even feel you want to hurt the baby because he took Mommy away from you.” This gives our children a huge gift; we legitimize their feelings, and give them the room to grow. When children learn to live with their weaknesses, we give them permission to be their real selves.

In real life, a session might play out something like this:

Five-year-old Moishy heads into the playroom and looks around. He instinctively moves toward the farm animals, but then stops and looks at Mommy for approval. Mommy sighs inwardly; while Moishy is, in a sense, her easier son, not the one who’s constantly hitting the toddler or coloring on the walls, his deep-seated insecurity is unsettling. And his siblings take full advantage.

Moishy is always fair game to let himself be “convinced” to share his treats, to give up his preferred seat at the Shabbos table, or pick up more than his fair share of the mess. Now, when Moishy stops on his way to the farm animals and looks at Mommy, she puts on a neutral expression and in an encouraging voice says to Moishy, “Moishy, all the toys in the room are for you. You can choose to play with whatever you’d like.”

Moishy heads to the barn.  Once seated with the animals, Mommy watches how Moishy sets them up, then takes the Playmobil children and has them line up outside the toy fence.

“Are the children going to visit the farm?” Mommy asks.

Moishy nods and becomes more vocal as he gets engrossed in his game. “Children, wait patiently while I pay,” he says, in the deepest voice his five-year-old squeak can muster.

“Tatty” heads away from the children and then comes back. “Okay, which animals shall we visit first?” he asks the “children.”

Two of the Playmobil people start heading in the direction of the horses, while one stays behind. Moishy turns him around to look at the sheep, then has him walk slowly after the other two toward the horses.

Mommy stops him, and points toward the last person. “Moishy,” she says, “does this one want to go to the horses or the sheep?”

“The sheep,” Moishy answers.

“So why is he going to the horses?”

“Because his brothers want to.”

“His brothers want to,” Mommy echoes. “What about what he wants?”

“He wants to be a good boy,” Moishy says.

“A good boy,” Mommy repeats again. “Good boys don’t visit sheep?”

Moishy seems more confident now as he says, “Good boys are mevater.”

“Good boys are mevater?” Mommy asks. “Always?”

Moishy seems stuck. He shrugs.

Mommy looks at Moishy in the eye and says, “Moishy, I’d like to tell you something important. What these little people want,” and she points to the other two at the horses, “is very important. But,” she stops for emphasis, “what this one wants,” she cradles the third one, “is very important too. He’s allowed to go to the sheep. He’s allowed to tell his brothers he doesn’t want to go to the horses. He’s allowed to keep his Shabbos treats, and he’s allowed to keep his seat at the Shabbos table.” She checks in to see if Moishy is following. He looks at her wide-eyed. “He’s still a good boy if he doesn’t clean up his sister’s mess. He is still a good boy if he decides what he wants to play and doesn’t always want to be mevater.”

She pats Moishy on the head and says, “Let’s try again. Which animal does this little person want to visit?”

“The sheep!” Moishy says, and he steers the Playmobil boy over to the sheep.

Mommy smiles. She knows it’ll be a long while until Moishy can transfer these skills to playing with his siblings, but she’s glad the journey has started.

The Aggressive Child

It’s ten minutes before Yossi’s due home, and Dini feels her shoulders tensing. How angry will he be today? And how many things will be destroyed, how many siblings hurt, not to mention how badly Dini’s nerves will be shred, before Yossi, finally, finally, goes to bed?

The aggressive child can be a terror to live with. He’s hurting and breaking things all the time. But here, too, private playtime with Mom can go a long way.

First, it can help us figure out what’s causing the aggression. Is something bothering him? Is he walking around with a burden he doesn’t want to share, but that’s consuming him?

If so, after giving him about 20 minutes or so of “wild play” (see sidebar) to let off steam, we should see him calm down. Then, when he’s calmer, we can direct him to the therapeutic toys, and see if he’ll be willing to share what’s wrong….

For a child whose aggression is caused by pent-up tension, this once-a-week session should be enough for Mom to discover the source of his distress and figure out how she can alleviate the source of his discontent throughout the week. The child knows he’ll have designated time to share what’s bothering him, and the relief of knowing that should spill over into the week.

(Sometimes a child’s aggressiveness isn’t coming from a release of pent-up emotional energy, but from sensory dysregulation; he may be hypo-sensory and need more touch, or he may have vestibular issues and poor sense of space and self, and that leads to the behaviors we see as aggressiveness. In such cases, the child would need an OT approach.)

Michal points out that even in the context of guided playtime, the aggressive child, like all children, needs boundaries. We may be giving him a safe space to let out his energy, but that doesn’t mean he can do whatever he wants. For example, he can’t color on the walls, but we might hang up a huge oaktag on the wall for him to use as he wishes.

The Controlling Child

“Chaim, it’s late. Go get dressed.” The minute Riva says it, she regrets it. The bus is coming in 15 minutes, Chaim and the other two little ones need to eat breakfast, and Chaim still isn’t dressed yet, but she knows what’s coming now.

“No!” says Chaim defiantly. Riva sighs. I don’t have time for this! She squeezes a kicking five-year-old Chaim into his clothes, puts him on the bus still screaming, and reaches for the Advil.

The controlling child doesn’t want to be told what to do. How it manifests may vary. He may listen at home and not to his teachers; he may give only his parents a hard time; or he may have social issues because he insists on always being in charge of games. How do we help him?

In our efforts to help the controlling child, we need to take a step back and understand why he acts the way he does. The need to control, explains Michal, often stems from an underlying anxiety or fear the child is dealing with. Lacking the tools to help himself, the child deals with his anxiety by trying to control whatever aspects of his environment he can, and in the process, can make life very difficult for everyone around him.

The playtime session with Mommy can give her a chance to explore the inner landscape of her controlling child, and find out what fears or anxieties he may be dealing with. If there’s a practical issue he’s facing that Mommy can take care of (Chaim is being bullied on the school bus) that’s the obvious solution, but even if Chaim’s fears center around something Mommy cannot help (Chaim is scared about terrorists) giving room for his feelings, and simply being there with him, can go a long way to helping Chaim feel a sense of security.

The controlling child also benefits from being given opportunities to make choices and initiate. This hour with Mommy in which he sets the agenda, and Mommy is simply with him, can take him a long way. And, of course, we can carry that over during the week, reminding him that his feelings are legitimate, and choosing to empathize with his emotions (“You wish you could have soda, it would so nice if you could”), rather than engaging in power struggles (“No way! Of course you can’t have soda!”) that will inevitably not end well.

When Riva asks Chaim to get dressed, she agrees with him that it would be so wonderful if he could wear his fireman costume to school, and only then tells him to go choose which pants and sweater he wants to wear. He trots off agreeably, and Riva breathes a sigh of relief.

It may look like this:

Gili always had a stubborn streak, but things have escalated recently. Bedtime with Gili has become an ordeal, with her long list of (often unreasonable) demands. The door has to be open, even though the light from the hallway bothers Shainy, and the window has to be closed, no matter how hot it gets.  She’ll only wear her black pj’s, and she insists on moving all the luggage stored under her bed to the middle of the room.

Mommy is willing to put in whatever it takes to try to help Gili and figure out what has been ticking her off recently. She sets up a play session, and Gili heads straight to the skills corner and takes out the Magna-Tiles. She starts building what seems to be a fortress, with each row a different color. She’s gotten up to the sixth story, when she realizes she doesn’t have enough orange pieces left to finish the row. She makes an angry face and knocks the whole thing down.

“You’re angry,” says Mommy.

Gili nods vehemently.

“There aren’t enough orange pieces,” Mommy says matter-of-factly.

Gili nods again, seeming a bit calmer, and starts rebuilding. This time, she makes each row shorter, and she has enough orange pieces.

When the fortress is done, she moves over to the bowling set. She takes the ball and aims at the fortress, which collapses in a resounding crash.

“The fortress fell, Gili, right?”

“It collapsed,” Gili says in a dark tone.

“It collapsed,” Mommy repeats. “How did that happen?” she asks.

Gili fishes out one of the soldiers from the aggressive-toy corner. “He pushed it down,” she says.

“Oy,” Mommy says, while keeping her voice calm. “Why did he do that?”

“He’s a bad man,” Gili answers.

“He sounds like a very bad man,” Mommy says, then she falls silent.

She watches Gili move on to the Kapla. She builds what looks like a log cabin, then puts one of the Playmobil figures inside. Appraising her cabin, she then starts flinging away all the Kapla pieces from one side of the cabin.

“Is the cabin too closed in?” Mommy asks Gili.

“Yes,” she says, while still tossing Kapla.

“Hmm,” says Mommy. “What would happen if all the walls were there?” she continues.

“She wouldn’t see if a robber was coming in,” Gili answers matter-of-factly.

“She wouldn’t see if a robber was coming in,” Mommy echoes. She thinks she may be starting to understand.

“So the girl makes sure she can see a robber from her bed?” she asks Gili.

“Yes,” Gili says, while searching through the Playmobil box. She finds the suitcases from the travel set. “And she makes sure she can run under her bed if a robber comes.”

Mommy blinks. Now things make more sense. Gili is simply afraid of robbers, and trying to protect herself in the best way her six-year-old mind can come up with.

“The girl must feel very scared at bedtime, right Gili?” she says gently.

Gili nods vigorously, suddenly stripped of her usual bravado.

“Do you think she would feel better if her Mommy sat with her at bedtime?” Mommy asks.

Gili nods again.

Mommy smiles, and squeezes Gili’s shoulder. She feels a door in their relationship opening.

The Withdrawn Child

This one doesn’t shake the house when he comes in… but we also have no idea how his day was.

While we tend to joke about the grunting responses boys offer, we can usually find some time of day when they’re willing to make conversation that’s beyond monosyllables. But sometimes we do hit that brick wall, when a kid simply won’t share. It can be a boy or a girl, and they may not be answering with grunts, but we realize we know very little about what they’re experiencing through the day.

For the withdrawn child, individual playtime with Mom can be a huge gift, as we give him time dedicated solely to him. When we wait, patiently, he’ll eventually take the lead. Slowly, we learn what his interests are, and he learns that Mommy is genuinely interested in getting to know him better. At first, play will be the medium through which we get to know his inner world better, but as he trusts us more, he’ll hopefully start to share more.

Getting Started

Michal suggests treating playtime with our child as a real appointment, once a week at a set time, for 45 minutes to an hour. She recommends four “corners” with different kinds of toys.

1) The “aggressive” corner: Here we’d find the soldiers, wild animals, etc.

2) The imaginative corner: Set up dolls, carriages, dishes, Playmobil, farm animals, and all the things that can allow a child’s imagination free rein.

3) The craft corner: Pull out the markers, crayons, paper, play dough, stickers, and if you’re really daring, the glitter.

4) The skills corner: Here we’d set out the toys that involve an element of skill and coordination, while making sure we’re not frustrating the child with something beyond his level. Some choices might include Magna-Tiles, Kapla, darts, or a bowling set.

Keep the four corners consistent each week, and give the child the option to choose where he’d like to spend the time. Often, at first he’ll be so excited by the choices facing him, he’ll go from corner to corner, trying to take it all in. By the third or fourth session though, we’ll often find that he gravitates to the one specific corner that fills his particular emotional need. Some children, though, will want to use more than one corner during a session. Regardless, Michal stresses that it’s important to always offer the option of all four corners; we never know at which point the child’s needs will change, and he’ll gravitate to a different corner.

During the session, the parent should use the time to reflect back to the child what he shares, his behaviors, and fantasies. As a session winds to a close, she should give him a five-minute heads-up, and then a one-minute heads-up, before closing up shop until the next week.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 747)

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