Play Therapy for Daughter Trying to Feed Her Brother Bathroom Cleaner?

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Reader’s Question

My daughter is two and a half. Recently she completely changed. She is aggressive to my 9-month-old son to the point where I have found her trying to feed him bathroom cleaner and nail polish. She is destroying everything she possibly can. Her dad left just before Christmas and ever since things have grown increasingly worse. Other family members have said that she doesn’t exhibit this behaviour when she is with them, but they only take her out, not my son. I have asked for help and been looked at like I’m crazy. I just don’t know what to do anymore.

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s hard to find words to describe the fear, anger, abandonment or grief you must be feeling. Her dad, your significant other, left just before Christmas, and things have been downhill from there. You sound exhausted and desperate. Despite this, you express yourself very well, and you can see the problem each of you is having. Your daughter, however, has less ability to find words for her own feelings. She can’t ask for help as you have. She can only act out her anger in front of the one she trusts the most — you. You say you’re misunderstood and harshly judged by your family, but you’re trying to be understood and helped. Your daughter is trying to be understood and helped, too. You two are joined together in this ordeal and are struggling to understand each other and comfort each other.

Of course, the first concern is for the safety of all your children. I’m sure you’ve already seen to that. Once secure, then I think it would be best if you played with your daughter. Play games that would be appropriate for a child a year younger. That is, play the sensori-motor games like play-doh, finger painting, gardening, etc. If you choose the play-doh, for example, then give her an opportunity to hammer and smash the doh. Give her a safe place to be angry and to destroy something. Play-doh is a good thing to try to destroy. She will be better able to stop her generalized destructive behavior once you’ve given her an approved way of being angry.

When you play with her, it’s OK for you to do a little doh-hammering yourself. I don’t mean to put feelings into you. I only mean that, if you do feel angry, it’s OK for you to pound on play-doh too. Your daughter will understand your actions, because you’d be expressing yourself as she does. You’d be speaking her language. She will watch you have ‘big feelings’ and she’ll realize that she’s not alone. She’s not the only one in pain. And she will see that your big feelings don’t kill you. You can survive them, and you are still there to care for her and keep her safe. This way, she can learn that it is safe for her to have these feelings too, and being angry and separated from her father won’t destroy her.

This is what a therapist would do in play therapy. Play is one of the few things we do where we get to express ourselves to the world. The rest of the time, we’re busy learning and taking in from others, and trying to accommodate to others. When life throws us a curve as it has thrown her, she can’t accommodate to it. She can’t accept that her father is gone. So she acts out in the only way she knows how. She tears things up just as her family has been torn up. She needs a way to express herself and be reassured that she’s still safe. She can find that way through play. In play, the world bends to her needs. She can act out her distress and then find a way, with you, to make it bearable.

We need to play and express ourselves so we can make sense out of the trials that life throws us. Play therapy helps children come to terms with the challenges they face, especially when they are too young to use words to express themselves. If you need help with her trials or your own, then try to find a therapist who can help you sort this out. With a therapist’s help, you can get some respite and give her another adult who can take her anger and help process it.

Since you are intervening so soon after her father’s leaving, play therapy should be able to work quickly to bring her out of her anger and aggression. There can be no denying, however, that this is the biggest shock she’s had to deal with in her entire short life. Give her and yourself some time to find a new balance, a new way to structure the family without him. In time, you will find a new balance, and she will adjust to the changes.

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