AnxietyChildrenFawn McNeil-HaberParents

Part 1: The Vital Role of Play in Easing Anxiety in Children

A woman smiles at a child during a play therapy session. This could represent the support child therapy in New Jersey can offer in addressing child anxiety. Learn more about the hlep a child therapist in Branchburg, NJ can offer by searching for child counseling in Branchburg, NJ today.

Play is a powerful tool for children and adults alike. 

However, academic pressures and extracurricular commitments frequently overshadow the importance of play. We live in a society that can be very focused on accomplishments.  This can even seep into therapy.  There can be an expectation in therapy that we fix the problem, develop coping skills to manage symptoms, and keep the topics of therapy focused on the presenting issue.  This course of action can be helpful for adults.

A father and son play with a wooden toy. This could symbolize the power of play in addressing childhood anxiety. Contact a child therapist in Branchburg, NJ to learn more about child therapy for anxiety and the support that child therapy in Scotch Plains, NJ can offer. However, children are not little adults.  Developmentally, they process life and express themselves through behaviors and experiences.  When it comes to anxiety in children, play is a marvelous way to manage and process big feelings in a healthy way. 

Understanding Childhood Anxiety

Before we explore the therapeutic benefits of play, it’s essential to understand childhood anxiety. Anxiety is a natural part of life.  When anxiety becomes overwhelming and persistent, though, it can greatly impact a child’s mental health. We should think of anxiety as a continuum.  Healthy anxiety can motivate us to wash our hands and minimize germs.  Anxiety can even be experienced as excitement. But sometimes anxiety gets in the way of everyday functioning. 

Anxiety that interferes with life can happen gradually or suddenly.  At the extreme end of anxiety, you might find your child regressing.  Previous areas of functioning may be impacted. For example, a child who has been potty trained for years may begin to wet themselves.  Or suddenly fears of being alone may derail bedtime.  

Common triggers for childhood anxiety include:

  • Academic stress
  • Peer relationships
  • Family dynamics
  • Social situations
  • Specific phobias
  • Novel situations like the first day of school 
  • And a variety of other potential worries

Children may manifest anxiety through physical symptoms: 

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Tantruming & Angry Outbursts

Alternatively, emotional signs include: 

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Tearfulness
  • Withdrawal 
  • Clinginess

Lastly, children may exhibit cognitive struggles including:

  • Frequent worries
  • Questioning
  • Catastrophizing (ruminating on worst-case scenarios)
  • Needing to be reassured repeatedly

When anxiety gradually increases sometimes it can be hard to notice.  Therefore, recognizing these signs early on is crucial for parents to provide the necessary intervention.  

The Therapeutic Power of Play

A woman pours sand on the hand of a child with ceberal palsy. This could represent the support that child therapy for anxiety can offer for addressing stress. Search for child counseling in Branchburg, NJ and the help a child therapist in Branchburg, NJ can provide.Ultimately, play is the language of childhood. It serves as a powerful tool for self-expression, emotional regulation, and social development. When it comes to anxiety, play provides children with a safe and non-threatening space to:

  • Explore and release their feelings
  • Express their concerns
  • Learn and practice coping mechanisms
  • Develop mastery over a scary situation

1. Emotional Expression   

Play allows children to express complex emotions that they may struggle to communicate verbally. Through imaginative play, such as role-playing or using dolls/action figures, children can act out scenarios that mirror their own experiences.  Thus, these figures play out the child’s internal emotional experiences. The expressed feelings may be already known by the parent and child.  For example, sadness about a parent’s travel related to work. Other emotions that feel too scary to express can also be processed through play.  Unsaid feelings of anger or fears the parent may not return might be revealed.  This helps your child make sense of their feelings.  It also provides therapists and parents with valuable insights into the child’s inner world.

2. Catharsis and Release

Play acts as a release for pent-up emotions. Engaging in physical play, such as running or engaging in sports, helps release built-up stress. This not only promotes physical health but also contributes to emotional well-being.  Physical engagement can reduce stress hormones and release endorphins.  This can promote feelings of relaxation and elevated mood.  Tag, Keep Away and Catch Me can be the burst of energy that releases pent-up anxiety.

3. Building Resilience

Play fosters resilience.  It allows children to face challenges, make decisions, and navigate social interactions in a controlled environment. Whether it’s a board game or an outdoor activity, each play experience presents a chance for children to develop problem-solving skills and learn to cope with setbacks.  These structured games are great for increasing frustration tolerance, managing a new situation, and practicing social skills.

4. Practicing Coping Strategies

Ever seen a young child coaching their doll on how to manage a difficult situation? Play can be a profound opportunity to practice skills.  “Dolly, you can’t play with the ball right now.  You have to wait your turn.”  We learn through watching others, instruction and practicing.  However when we teach the skill to someone else, we can achieve a whole different level of mastery.

5. Developing Mastery

In continuation, play provides children with the opportunity to re-experience a situation. This provides opportunities that may not be available in real life.  They may replay a scenario over and over.  This is similar to what we, adults, do with our thoughts.  They test out alternative responses and consider a variety of potential endings.  As they do this, your child may develop a better understanding of the situation.  In turn, they may start to talk about their experience with words.  As adults, we can notice if they seem to be developing a mastery or increased ease with the situation.  Or we may see kids get stuck in the same play over a long period of time.

Play to Process Childhood Anxiety

An example of this was when my own son had an anaphylactic reaction.  As a result, a series of playful behaviors developed.  First, he started pretending to have a reaction.  (I did not initially experience this as play).  However, this was playful as he would hold his neck and cough “help me”.  He would stop and confirm I was paying attention. If I wasn’t, he would seek me out in the house and proceed again with his play.  In response, my role was to get a trainer epi pen (one without any actual medication) and inject him.  Sometimes I would have to chase him.  Sometimes he would need to be injected several times until the play stopped.  Eventually, we were able to talk about his concerns about the reaction AND the need to ensure we were able to help him. After a few months, the behavior decreased and disappeared.

A black woman takes notes on a clipboard while a child plays with blocks. This could symbolize the support child therapy in New Jersey can offer. Learn more about child counseling in Branchburg, NJ and the help child therapy for anxiety can offer. Indeed, it is important for us as adults to understand and embrace the importance of play.  This is especially crucial for our children.  Once we can really embrace its therapeutic properties we can make it an integral part of supporting childhood anxiety.  Therapists use play therapy every day for profound healing in children with anxiety.  In part 2, Practical Tips for Parents, we will dig into how you can use play to support your anxious child.

Get Started With Child Therapy in New Jersey Today!

Play can be an important coping skill for a child with anxiety. A child therapist can help you to understand the importance of play for a child with anxiety. Our child therapists in Branchburg, NJ, and Scotch Plains, NJ understand the importance of parent involvement. To ensure that you have the parenting support you need and deserve and to begin therapy for your child, follow these steps:

  1. Connect with Brave Minds Psychological Services today for a free 20-minute consultation.
  2. Get your questions answered by one of our experienced therapists.
  3. Begin feeling more hopeful as a parent.

Other Counseling Services at Brave Minds Psychological Services

At Brave Minds Psychological Services, we offer a variety of services from our licensed therapists in order to get you on the right path to healing. Our other services include child sexual abuse therapytherapy for teensanxiety treatment for teens, and teen social phobia therapy. We also specialize in adult anxiety counselingpostpartum counselingbirth trauma therapysexual assault counseling for adultsfood allergy therapyonline therapygroup therapycouples counseling, and counseling for parents.

Futhermore, we also have a blog where we write about a variety of different mental health subjects. If you’re interested in learning more about us here at Brave Minds Psychological Services, please reach out at our Scotch Plains and Branchburg counseling offices!

A headshot of Fawn smiling. Learn how a child therapist in Branchburg, NJ can offer support by searching for child therapy in New Jersey today. Learn more about the support child therapy for anxiety can offer and more.