by Frank C. Sacco, Ph.D., CSI President, Scholar in Residence
Early childhood memories of trauma, fear and pain can live on in a child’s mind throughout their life. Anna Freud coined this term when she provided therapy to children orphaned by the Blitzkrieg bombings of London by the Germans in WW II. Children lost their parents and experienced tremendous trauma through this period of very high danger and stress. She noticed that children turn their fears and pain into symbolic ghosts revealed in their play.
When children are given the ability to freely associate and play, they tend to symbolize their pain in how they play. The child’s play is the language of symbolization. The ghosts live in the characters of the play and can become ingrained into a child’s mind and develop into self or other destructive symptoms that disrupt family, school, and community life. Ghosts hate school and get loose in a crowd.
Play therapy creates an arena for the child to let the ghosts fly through their play. Ghosts lose their power when released and are challenged by the therapist. Children will show how they learned to cope with stress and emotional pain. They may become aggressive and attack before being attacked, retreat before being attacked, deny danger, overreact to normal stress and limits, and other self-defeating strategies to cope.
Ghosts only have power to create fear when they are hidden; it is the therapist’s job to pull the ghosts out into the therapy and contain them. The child’s mind sees the ghost slowly defeated by the supportive therapist communicating through play.
Play therapy is an unraveling of the ghost stories exhibited through play in the safety of the supportive relationship between the child and therapist. Fear threatens a child’s sense of safety and attachment to protective adults. Kids will try to stand on their own but quickly develop habits that inhibit their social-emotional development. The therapist’s job is to invite the ghosts out, exercise them, identify them, CONTAIN THEM, and gradually help a child to let the ghosts go and grow emotionally healthy. This is a basic human right of all children.
Anna Freud and Marie Montessori were buddies and both understood that children need to be allowed to be children and us as adults should protect, inspire, and guide them and not turn them into little boxes of answers for tests.