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One of the outcomes that we often see in children who receive Play & Creative Arts Therapy is an improved ability to regulate difficult feelings. Many parents and teachers report a reduction in incidents where the child loses their temper at home and at school. In this blog, we take a look at what impact therapy has on children’s ability to improve their emotional regulation.

In Play & Creative Arts therapy there is a huge focus on our relationship with the child. The way that we react, respond and interact with a child will have a massive impact on their behaviour and understanding of the world around them.

One of the things that I often share with parents is that children regulate themselves around adults. This means that children will observe what’s going on around them and adapt their behaviour accordingly to get their needs met.

What can also happen in the mix is that as adults, our feelings get triggered by the child’s behaviour and we can perpetuate the cycle of challenges faced by the child.

To help explain this concept, let’s imagine the child’s feelings as a snowball.

The child has a difficult feeling that they keep inside. For example, it might be a feeling that they are disliked because their best friend decided they wanted to play with someone else at break time. That difficult feeling sits like a stone in the child’s body, maybe somewhere around the stomach and makes them feel bad for the rest of the day. Several things may happen after the incident with the friend. This triggers the snowball effect where the stone starts to roll down the hill, picking up snow with it. Bad feelings start building up like packed snow around the stone until the feelings become big and overwhelming. At one point later in the day, the child might get told off for being mean to another child in class and suddenly the snowball becomes too big for the child to handle and they decide to launch it directly at their teacher along with all of their difficult and sad feelings. In this moment, the child is no longer able to contain those big feelings and they have to come out in some explosive way.

In this situation, it’s easy for the teacher to catch that snowball (because to the teacher, the snowball is actually much smaller than it is for the child) and feel upset and annoyed about it being thrown their way. Because the teacher is feeling angry about what has just happened, they launch the snowball back at the child and react in a similar way. This creates a negative cycle for the child where they can get stuck with their difficult feelings.

When we react in this way to children’s challenging behaviours we show children their feelings are also too big and overwhelming for us to handle – their bad feelings make us feel bad which is why we also react in a negative way. Afterwards the child feels stuck, left with their bad feelings and yours, bundled up in a giant snowball which takes ages to dissolve. Everyone has forgotten what happened at the beginning of the day that put a stone in the child’s tummy, which then triggered this chain of events.

In therapy, we get a chance to uncover that stone at the centre of the snowball. The child may launch their snowball at their therapist, expecting it be thrown back their way. But the therapist will react in quite a different way. The therapist will catch the snowball, lovingly. They will examine it and remove the snow from the outside, bit by bit, until they reach the stone at the middle. They will pass the stone back to the child so that the child can look at it. Together they will notice that the stone wasn’t really that big to start with. They will play out different scenarios with the stone to see how things could have been.

What the therapist does differently to many other adults, is that they very carefully contain the difficult feelings of the child. They see through the behaviour, through all the layers of snow and they get to the centre of it very quickly. They can give it back to the child through reflection, through stories and through commentary. This helps the child to understand their experience in a safe way and to understand how they might recognise that stone again in the future.

This process helps children to develop understanding about themselves, about how they are feeling. It helps them to be able to contain their own feelings through the process of having a secure adult contain their feelings for them. This experience cannot be taught. It is not something that is understood through teaching or reading. It is a felt experience that happens in relationship. When therapists can model this containing behaviour in sessions with a child it helps them to create their own capacity for containing their own feelings and also a capacity for helping them to understand and contain the feelings of others. This in turn, helps the development of emotional regulation.

All adults can provide this safe experience for a child if we choose to catch the snowball lovingly. Launching it back to the child through your own anger and upset does not teach the child how to regulate feelings. Take a step back and try to respond rather than react.

Next time a child in your care is acting out, think to yourself ‘what is the child feeling right now?’ It can be very easy to label the child as naughty or disruptive, but unless we can get to the core of what the child is feeling we cannot help them to regulate their feelings. As adults, we have to decide what we do with the snowballs that children throw at us, after all they are much smaller and easier for us to deal with compared to how the child feels. We are role models to the children in our lives. If we offer ‘good-enough’ guidance they will be able to learn the skills they need to reach their full potential.