Healing through Play

Two young brothers find their inner voice through play therapy

Joey and Ryan were just two and four years old when they were removed from their mother’s care for their own safety. They had been living in a house of chaos and uncertainty, where they were repeatedly exposed to domestic violence and their mother faced too many of her own issues to properly care for them. Although they had very different personalities, they did share one thing in common: the anxiety they felt when they lost contact with their mother.

The two brothers were placed in kinship foster care with Nina, their mother’s cousin. The goal was to reunify the boys with their mother as quickly as possible, but it would take some time while she got the help she needed to work through her issues and get her life back together. Although Nina provided a loving and supportive environment, she had her hands full with two boys who had been living in a household where there were few rules or routines, were separated from their mother, and traumatized by what they had witnessed.

Joey, an outgoing bundle of energy, adjusted more easily, perhaps because of his young age. Ryan, the more reserved one, began to have temper tantrums, especially in school. He would scream and cry, throw himself on the floor or hurl toys across the room; he also had trouble transitioning from one activity to the next. Things were not easy at home either, and both Nina and his teachers realized that he needed special support.

Through The Home’s Preschool Outreach Program, Ryan began to receive play therapy. During weekly sessions at school, he spent time in the playroom with a clinician named Kelly, surrounded by a dollhouse, animal and people figurines, games and books. Kelly’s initial focus was on developing a trusting relationship with Ryan; given his history, it was not surprising that he had trouble trusting others, especially adults.

As the rapport between them grew, Kelly was able to use the toys and other creative activities to help Ryan communicate his thoughts and feelings. He loved animals and would gravitate towards his favorite animal figurines. Certain themes began to develop, often involving two animals fighting each other: big vs. small; evil vs. good. Play therapy gave him a way to express what was too big and difficult to put into words, especially for a four-year-old. The safer he began to feel, the more willing he was to share what was bundled up inside.

Ultimately, Joey was also referred to the Preschool Outreach Program. His way of coping with his feelings reflected his personality; his energy turned into aggression, fighting with Ryan at home and getting into trouble at school. His behavior could no longer be blamed on the terrible twos. When he began to work with his clinician Meg, he would talk non-stop for the 45-minute session, but lacked the language skills to verbalize his emotions. Play therapy gave him a healthy way to act out and work through his anger, and gave Meg the opportunity to model positive and nurturing behavior.

In addition to working directly with the boys, Kelly and Meg also supported Nina, giving her strategies to manage the boys’ behavior at home; provided consultation and training to the teachers at the preschool; and stayed in contact with their social worker at the Department of Children and Families.

A few months ago, Joey and Ryan were reunited with their mother and are now living with her again. It took almost two years, but they are both in a much better place, as is she. Ryan rarely has tantrums, has bonded with his teachers, and loves to tell jokes. Joey is friendly, obsessed with trains, and also likes to make people laugh.

Meg and Kelly continue to have play therapy sessions with the boys each week, providing a consistency that played a major role in easing this transition. In addition to their work in the school, they are doing family therapy, helping the mother to rebuild a relationship with her sons and become a family again.

Ryan and Joey are a reminder of just how much children can overcome, and the value of play, which gave them a way to heal. Thank you for supporting The Home’s work and helping us to make stories like this possible.

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