My Attempt at Play Therapy

One of my classes this term is therapeutic communication. Since I’ve been too busy to post any new blog entries lately, I thought instead that I would share a recent assignment with you. (Names have been changed, just because.)

I “borrowed” my friend Lisa’s two boys for this assignment. Andrew is six years old, and his brother Warren is four. I wasn’t really able to work with them one-on-one — we were at their house, and they were both too interested in what was going on to put up with being excluded, even for a short time, so I just took them both on at once.

Since I’m at their house a lot, I wanted to let them know that this time was a little different, so I announced that I needed them to help me with my homework. Andrew wanted to know how he could do that, and I suggested that maybe he could draw a picture for me. He pounced eagerly on the idea, informing me that “I’m a good drawer!” and went off to retrieve paper and markers, while Warren assured me that he, too was a “good drawer” and would also be glad to help me with my homework.

Back with his paper, green marker uncapped and poised over the blank sheet, Andrew asked me what he should draw. “Could you draw me a picture of your family?” I asked. “Okay,” he agreed, then stopped. “Which family?” he asked. “I have two families. They’re separate, because they’re divorced.”

“Daddy has the biggest family,” Warren informed me, interrupting. “He has a four family. Mommy only has a three family.” He considered the three fingers he was holding up to illustrate his point. “But Mommy has the biggest bed,” he finished, as though that was obviously the most important consideration. I smiled at him.

“Why don’t you just draw them both?” I suggested to Andrew. “Okay,” he replied, “but I’m going to draw Mommy’s family first, because I love her more.” He busily began drawing green stick figures on his page.

Warren got himself a sheet of paper as well, and chose a blue marker. Then he stopped. “I can’t draw people,” he told me. “Heads are hard to draw.” “They’re just circles,” I told him. “Can you draw a circle?” He shot me a derisive look. “They’re ovals,” he corrected me. “Oh,” I said, not the least bit therapeutically. “Ovals are hard to draw,” he continued, with the exaggerated tone of patience one might use when breaking down a complex idea for an especially dense student. “Oh,” I said again, feeling appropriately stupid, and mentally scrambling for a way to regain my therapeutic composure. “What else can you draw that wouldn’t be so hard?” “Ummm…” He leaned back against my arm, pondering the question. “Monster heads are kind of hard to draw, too…” he said thoughtfully.

Andrew announced that his drawing was finished, and brought it for me to see. I pointed at each figure in turn, asking him who they were. The first, and the tallest, he informed me, was “Mommy.” “Is she sad?” I asked him, trying to discern the expression on the stick figure’s face. “No,” he answered, studying the drawing. “I didn’t mean to draw her sad. I think… I think maybe she just ate something that tastes bad.” We both laughed. “Who’s this?” I asked, pointing at the next larger figure. Andrew replied that it was his cousin David. Beside David, a slightly smaller figure with a large smile turned out to be Andrew himself. “Why are you smiling so big in the picture?” I asked him. “I’m happy because I’m meeting new friends at school,” he replied, “and I can walk there, so it’s more easy.” (This is Andrew’s first year in public school.) The remaining three figures were his brother Warren, his uncle Dan (Lisa’s brother), and his Aunt Susan, Dan’s wife. Oddly, he couldn’t remember Susan’s name, and I had to prompt him with it. Dan and Susan and David, until just recently, lived with Lisa and her boys, which created a lot of stress and pressure for Lisa. The arrangement was supposed to help Lisa out financially, but Susan’s irresponsibility with money ended up creating more of a financial burden instead. Although the conflicts were not overt, I’m sure the kids sensed the tension, and wondered if his perception that Susan had made life difficult for his mom might have anything to do with Andrew not remembering her name. Or maybe he’s just six years old. 🙂

Andrew selected a brown marker and began drawing his dad’s family. Warren informed me “I’m good at drawing stars.” “Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you draw me some stars?” “Well…” he hesitated. “Usually Mommy makes dots for me to follow, like ‘connect the dots.'” “Would you like me to make you some dots?” I asked, and he nodded and handed me his paper. I mapped out five dots for a star that would be about an inch across. “Do the dots need to have numbers?” I asked, and he said that they did, so I numbered them in the order that would make them a star, beginning with one and then finishing back at the same point with a six. “No,” he told me, “there’s not supposed to be a six by the one. And I only wanted it this big,” he continued, holding his fingers up about a half inch apart. Feeling like the slow pupil again, I started over, making five dots at the requested size, but leaving off the numbers this time. He studied it carefully. “No, that’s too big,” he announced finally. “I need it THIS big.” He held up his fingers again, a fraction smaller than before. “I’ll do it,” he announced then, reaching for my pen. I offered him my notebook to use as a drawing surface, and he busily began making random marks on the page while I dug another pen out of my bag to take notes with.

Andrew had finished his dad’s family by now, and brought it to show me. Again, we went through each character in turn, in the order that I had seen him draw them. All of the figures looked unhappy to me, but I didn’t say anything about it this time, since last time it had almost put me in danger of seeming critical of his drawing skills. His dad was the largest figure on this drawing, but somewhat smaller than the mom figure in his first drawing. Pamela, his dad’s girlfriend, was about the same size. Andrew and Warren were both very small figures. Then there was Auntie Renee, Granna and Pop-pop, and finally Uncle Hank. “He gives spankings,” Warren informed me, looking over my shoulder at Andrew’s drawing. “I hate him.” “Who does he spank?” I asked. “Me and Andrew,” he replied. Andrew nodded in agreement.

I didn’t feel nearly as “in control” when interacting with children as in my attempts with adults. I’m not sure if that’s just how it is, or if more experience would change things. Lisa was taken back by the revelation of Uncle Hank spanking the boys, so perhaps something useful came of the assignment. Both boys seemed to casually accept the “two families” scenario as completely normal, but since their father left shortly after Warren was born, it’s probably the only reality they know of. I’m still puzzled over Andrew’s inability to remember Susan’s name. In our rare encounters, however, I found her to not be a very likeable person, and never really saw any indication that she felt any interest in or fondness for Lisa’s boys, so maybe her name just isn’t all that important to him.

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