Playing through the pain

It truly was a gorgeous day. Warm rays of sunshine beamed down, the sweet smell of budding flowers circulated in the air, and birds flew limb-to-limb and sung their high-pitched melodies. The kids enjoyed what seemed like a cycle of nonstop fun: playing in the sandbox, swinging, riding bikes, playing chase, [REPEAT]. It provided me with the perfect opportunity to slump down comfortably in the lawn chair and just “be” for a while.

That was until my three-year-old daughter stumbled while running and her knee collided with the driveway. It did not look good, but I tried to hide my own reaction to see if this would be one of those times when she would just bounce back up as if nothing had happened. Nope. Commence the wailing. This was not one of those times.

I attempted to pick her up to console her, but she pushed me away. I persisted and picked her up anyways, thinking that she just needed her dad to hold her for a couple minutes and things would be better. She let me know I was wrong, by crying even louder, trying to free herself from my grasp, and pleading with me to put her down. I relented for a moment and set her down, but after seeing that she was not settling down on her own, I picked her up again and carried her inside the house. I hoped a change in scenery would be hopeful. Nope. Commence more wailing.  

So at this point, there was not only the original injury…there was the added insult of having to leave all of the outdoor fun that she had been enjoying. I sat with her in a chair in her room with the lights off and the fan blowing, trying to talk her out of her pain: “It’s okay honey. Shhhh. You’re okay.” My responses became less compassionate as my efforts to soothe her failed: “Honey, c’mon, does it really hurt that bad?”

Desperate, I reached out and grabbed her stuffed animal rabbit that was nearby, hopped it in her direction, and held it in front of her. Using the best high-pitched voice I could muster, I said, “Oh no...you’re sad about something.” She seemed a bit caught off guard by this rabbit, but it seemed friendly. She wiped away some tears, sniffled, and then replied, “Yeah. I got a boo-boo on my knee.” “Ouch. Boo-boos don’t feel good. Your boo-boo hurts,” the rabbit said. “Yes. It hurts really bad,” she admitted quickly. “Would it help if I gave it a kiss?” the rabbit asked. She chuckled and nodded. The rabbit then gave a gentle kiss on her knee and then a silly, elaborate kiss on her face. Chuckles then turned into full-on laughter as she and the rabbit went back-and-forth in this playful exchange.

As a parent, I often have experiences like these with my own children that remind me of what I already know and believe to be true as a counselor and a play therapist. In this experience with my daughter, I was reminded about the power of play and its ability to open up an avenue for helpful communication between children and adults. Play often provides an easier means for kids to express themselves, to be understood, and to process what they’ve experienced. Whereas my attempts to reason with her and to talk her out of her pain only made matters worse, the play provided a way for me to meet her where she was in a way that resonated with her. You can bet that the next time a “boo-boo” is experienced in our house, I’ll forego being a talking head, and we will play our way through the pain.  

Nick Cornett, PhD, LMFT, LPC, Registered Play Therapist is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at John Brown University. His specialty areas include play therapy and marriage and family therapy.