Little ones learn to soothe themselves after being wholly soothed by their caregiver thousands and thousands of times. You’ve seen this cycle: The baby cries in distress, and the caregiver picks up the baby—rocking, murmuring, and soothing them—until the baby eventually sighs and collapses, molding into the warmth and softness of this caring other.
However, children who didn’t get these repetitions of co-regulation due to neglect, maltreatment, or a multitude of other adverse childhood experiences never learn the ability to self-soothe, even in their later years. For example, a ten-year-old child who can get a perfect score on a math test when her neocortex is in charge may throw massive tantrums at home when she is stressed, making her present more like a two-year-old in terms of social-emotional development.
Children with neurodivergent development may also have a hair-trigger amygdala alarm that kicks them out of their window of tolerance much more quickly than their peers. This lack of self-regulation sets them up for negative interactions with their classmates and caregivers that can ultimately damage their self-esteem.
Many children with big behaviors need help learning how to regulate themselves more quickly or more effectively. To do so, we want them to take advantage of all sorts of sensory-soothing experiences while also learning how to pay attention to their sense of interoception, or what their bodies are telling them. We frequently check in with clients about how hot or cold they are feeling, and we invite clients to use their words to ask for what they need.
An important concept within the TraumaPlay model is that we are not working simply to calm the client, but to teach them to calm themselves. We help them to recognize more deeply when they are moving out of their optimal arousal zone and to determine the strategies that work best to help them return to this zone (i.e., to downregulate when they are in a state of hyperarousal or to upregulate when they are in a state of hypoarousal).
The following intervention can be particularly helpful for children who struggle to close their eyes and relax due to the fear of impending danger.
When it comes to working with dysregulated children, sometimes the biggest behaviors come in the smallest containers.
From tantrums and defiance to self-injury and withdrawal, even the most skilled professionals find themselves focused on extinguishing the troubling behavior rather than stepping back to ask: What is the underlying emotional need?
In Big Behaviors in Small Containers, you’ll find 131 practical, fun, and ready-to-use play therapy interventions that shift the paradigm around problematic behaviors to allow for therapeutic growth and healing. Based on TraumaPlay®, a treatment approach that prioritizes attachment, co-regulation, and the science of the stress response system, the interventions inside will help kids:
Develop a sense of safety and security
Expand their window of tolerance
Cope adaptively with anger, anxiety, and other strong emotions
Enhance their emotional literacy
Strengthen social skills and self-esteem
Challenge and overcome unhelpful thoughts
Develop a coherent narrative around trauma and other difficult experiences
Whether you’re a therapist, teacher, doctor, caregiver, or trusted grown-up in a child’s life, the tools inside will allow you to become the co-regulating, nurturing, and consistent presence that your “small container” needs to remain grounded in the face of stress, big feelings, and difficult situations.
Paris Goodyear-Brown, MSSW, LCSW, RPT-S, certified EMDR therapist, is the creator of TraumaPlay®, a flexibly sequential play therapy model for treating trauma and attachment disturbances in family systems. She is the founder of the TraumaPlay® Institute, the Clinical Director of Nurture House, an Adjunct Instructor of Psychiatric Mental Health at Vanderbilt University, and an EMDRIA Approved Consultant. Paris has an international reputation as a dynamic and compassionate speaker. She is a sought-after supervisor, a master clinician, and a prolific author. As a thought leader in the fields of child trauma and play therapy, she has received the APT award for Play Therapy Promotion and Education, given a Ted Talk on Trauma and Play Therapy and served as the Executive Director of the Lipscomb Play Therapy and Expressive Arts Center. She is on the board of TNAPT and is the author of multiple chapters and articles including Play Therapy with Traumatized Children and Parents as Partners in Child Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide. Her twelfth book, Big Behaviors in Small Containers, is hot off the press! Paris finds great joy in training clinicians all over the world in helping children and their families speak the unspeakable.
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