This is part of a longer question so let me set up the scenario for you. The parent has a 5-year old and this 5-year old saw part of a scary movie when they were visiting cousins. It sounds like it was a horror movie but the parent didn’t give a lot of details about it. In any case, the child is now obsessed with this movie particularly in their play. Like pretending to be the bad guy or pretending to run from the bad guy. But the child is also still clearly scared because they’re having trouble sleeping and say it’s because of the movie.
So why is that? Why do these themes come up in their play? If they find it so scary, then why do they keep coming back to it?
I’ve seen this with other kids around real life scenarios, for example, a child who saw a tree in their yard come down during a storm and becomes obsessed with the weather or makes a point of seeking out big trees on the playground. Or a child is scared of robbers at bedtime but always wants to play robbers at recess. Or you might be seeing this with your own child around Halloween decorations right now, being scared of them and also kind of obsessed with them.
To understand what’s going on here we need to understand how children process things. We process things by talking, right? If we have a worry we generally want to talk it out.
Children do this, too, but they also process things through play. The younger they are, the more we’ll see these themes — these anxious themes — show up in play. This is one reason why play therapists keep certain toys around, certain standard toys like a doctor’s kit. Lots of kids worry about the doctor and lots of kids need to process scary parts of it like getting shots and so doctor’s kits give them a way to do that.
I can’t tell you the number of kids who would spend their entire therapeutic hour giving me shots over and over again. They loved it and they would direct me to be scared. They’d say, “You have to get a shot and you should be crying.”
This is the way they work to make sense of it and also to give themselves some control over it.
Learning that we have control over our lives is one way we learn to manage our anxiety about what is NOT controllable. When children play with things that scare them or make them anxious, it helps them to explore it under their own steam. If a thing has happened TO them that they did not expect or welcome — like a falling tree, or a scary movie, or the sudden appearance of an animatronic witch in the yard of the house next door — talking about it helps them process and move through it.
But just like We may need to talk about it so much that we start to bore our friends or even ourselves children can get stuck in their play and may need our help to move on. They may need us to help solve the problem they’re repeating.
How can you tell? Given that repetitive play — like giving your therapists a million flu shots — can be part of processing, how can you tell when they’re stuck?
Look for small changes in their play. They may up the ante, like begin to give the shot more ferociously. Or they may start explaining more ahead of time. Or they may offer more comfort after the shot. Even small changes show that they are working with their fear and exploring its limits and its control.
What is their attitude about the play? Do they seem like they’re having fun? Are they gleeful? Or are they worried? Do they seem more upset after playing or do they seem relieved or ready to move on? Children may become “obsessed” with things that scare them. If they seem controlled by the play rather than controlling it, that’s Alan an indicator that they’re stuck.
If they don’t seem stuck, if their play seems enjoyable, if they’re mostly having fun and if you see changes however small, they likely don’t need our help.
If your child does seem trapped in their play then you can do things to help them get unstuck. You can show them a way out. IN the therapy room we use a lot of cages or other traps. I had a whole set of toys that represented typical childhood fears like skeletons and mean guys and spiders and zombies — and kids loved to put them in jail or bury them in the sand tray and put the lid on top.
You can offer that, too. Let your imagination go and think about ways to conquer fear through play.
Now one thing I want to mention is that sometimes anxious play can be upsetting to us. For example, a child may connect more with a bad guy. They may want to be Darth Vader in the big good vs evil battle. We might worry — why are they identifying with the wrong side? Well, the answer to that might be as simple as Darth Vader is kind of cool. He’s got a great voice and a cape. It also might be that pretending to be the thing that kind of scares us is a great way to master that fear. Pretending to be the robber means the robber can’t scare you anymore.
It’s just another way to process things.
This is also why at certain ages kids might be obsessed with fighting or weapons. They’re trying to feel safe. Play is a safe way to practice being safe. And it’s imaginary, remember that. It’s no more an expression of real wants and wishes than our watching Breaking Bad is a sign that we all want to cook meth. Adults play via video games, TV shows, and reading books, right? And kids play by playing.
Play — as long as no one is getting hurt — should have free range. Again, that means no one has to play when they don’t want to, no one should be forced to play in a way that they don’t like — but if everyone is safe and having fun then it’s fine. We adults sometimes get hung up on play — about what it means, about how it’s happening — but especially if we recognize play as a way to work through tough issues, we need to let kids do the things that they do.
Now one thing though. When we say “fun” in regards to play, it kind of diminishes the importance of play. Maybe I should use the term “satisfying” instead. Play is truly a child’s work. It is how they process and experience and learn to manage the world. It is vital. And it’s often outside of the understanding of adults who want play to be clean and clear and, I guess, nice. Play is not always nice. It’s serious. It’s important. It matters to children deeply.
If you want to read a good descriptions of play, check out the third chapter of the book Ramona the Brave. It’s a great book about child anxiety (if you haven’t read it or don’t remember, it’s the one where Ramona is afraid of the gorilla without bones) and the description of Ramona and her buddy Howie playing brick factory is a terrific reminder of what play can be. I’ll leave you with this short description of their play,
“Brick Factory, [is] a simple but satisfying game. Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.”
from Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary