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Elaine Hutchinson

Creative Art and Play Therapy

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Children playing aggressively

Aggression in play is hard… as the adult it takes you right to the edge of what you can hold from an energy perspective and can leave you feeling tired and drained. Even as a trained and experienced therapist, it can be hard work!

If you have a child struggling with anger and aggression, the playroom is the perfect place for them to explore those feelings and to work through them. In the playroom they can explore whatever they need to in order to feel better and can do or say things they would not be able to do outside the playroom. That’s not to say there are no boundaries: there are. Everyone and everything has to stay safe in the playroom. By allowing children to safely explore their aggression in the playroom we, as therapists allow them to begin to heal. Exploring and working with those feelings safely together in the playroom means we often find they are seen less outside of the playroom.

In the playroom, we generally see aggressive play take two forms, much like you will at home or at school. Either we are an observer – watching a child smash models, or bash clay, for example, or we are participants – perhaps sharing in a mock sword fight with foam swords. (Aggression towards us is never tolerated and will be redirected before we get hurt.)

Whether you (the adult) are observing the play or part of it as a participant, aggressive play is intense. This is because it is processed in our nervous system in such a way that the extremes feel uncomfortable, so our gut instinct is often to avoid it. Our brains perceive the aggressive play as a threat and being in an aroused threat state is exhausting. The more aggressive the play, the more our nervous systems reacts and the more we feel overwhelm and fatigue.

(For those of you who like the neuro-science – this uncomfortable feeling is because both the sympathetic and dorsal parasympathetic states of our nervous system are being aroused together. This means we are both hyper-aroused and hypo-aroused, which is an uncomfortable state to be in. Your brain only registers about 1% of all the sensory data it processes, so even if you aren’t aware of it, your body will be feeling it – hence the disconnect and fatigue as the adult.)

This is where often our adult experiences and protective patterns come into play and we tend to stop or re-direct the child. This stops the child exploring those feelings of anger and potentially reinforcing them. Modern cultures often reinforces to children that to feel and express aggression is not acceptable and is wrong. Often, the child is then left feeling full of guilt and shame when they get feelings of anger and aggression.

Aggression is a normal response to a threat or a challenge. What we do as therapists is to encourage a child to stay connected to themselves in the middle of those intense feelings, so they can learn alternative ways of safely working with that intensity. By keeping ourselves grounded and connected to the child they will feel safer in the moment and more able to cope and develop resilience.

Often there is far more to the aggression than just anger. Children sometimes need to integrate traumatic memories and experiences, and re-working these memories and experiences takes them time and support, again – the ideal place to work through this is in the playroom with a therapist who is experienced in supporting children with trauma.

All behaviour is an attempt to regulate (bring in or shut out) sensory data, even feelings of rage and physical outbursts. They may not be as socially acceptable as playing or running about, but they come from the same place and are the child’s attempts at the same regulating outcome.

As therapists (and as adults) our job is to be an external regulator for that child – to share their experiences and to show them how to manage them safely. When the child connects to their feelings in the playroom, they learn to feel them without becoming overwhelmed and ‘flooded’ by them, managing their experiences better.

As an adult managing angry and aggressive outbursts by a child, one of the best things you can do is find a therapist who will support you and coach you as well as working with your child.

If you’d like some helpful tips about helping a child who struggles with anger and aggression – please feel free to get in touch and I will send you my ‘top tips’ sheet of regulating activities that might be useful!

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