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How play therapy helped my daughter and saved my sanity

I freaked out the other day when my 3-year-old hit her arm and said, “Mommy, isn’t it so funny when I hurt myself?”

“No, baby. No, it isn’t,” I said. It was all I could think to say in that moment. All of my anxieties ceased floating in the air around me and came to rest firmly on my shoulders. Instead of stepping into her thoughts and trying to understand them more fully, I became paralyzed in my own.

Is something wrong with her? Am I missing something? She’s only 3 — why would she want to hurt herself?

Sometimes, I think I know too much. I’m a social worker for disenfranchised women. I know what happens when mommies don’t see the signs that something is amiss in their kids’ lives. The outcomes are not good. Unfortunately, my knowledge manifests itself in hypervigilance and a commitment to never miss the signs that something is going wrong in my child’s life. As a single parent with only one set of eyes, one set of ears and 24 hours in a day, that commitment is a heavy load to bear.

In the aftermath of my kid’s brief foray into slapping herself, I did what I wish I had done months ago. I called up a play therapist. I hoped that she could help my daughter cope in a way I apparently couldn’t. “My daughter needs help,” I told her over the phone. “She hit herself. I think the custody ups and downs are upsetting her, and I don’t think I’m doing enough to help her.”

After I hung up the phone, relief washed over me. My phone call had purchased an extra set of eyes and ears. It had purchased a pair of shoulders with which to bear the heavy load of caring for my daughter. Every adult in my world — myself included — wants more than anything for my child to be OK. I fear that the desire for her to be OK crowds out her ability to not be OK, even when things are going wrong. By calling the therapist, I gave my child the space to not be OK with an objective and caring adult. And I allowed an objective adult to shoulder the burden with me.

When my daughter’s appointment came, I sat in the waiting room while she went to play with her therapist. I could hear them clattering around with paints, puzzles and dolls. They emerged from the playroom and the therapist looked at me. “She’s really well-adjusted,” she said. “No cause for concern during this first session.”

My daughter is OK. And with some support and an extra set of eyes, I am too.

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