The Hidden Treasure

Where Ancient Wisdom Meets Contemporary Psychology

Emotional Expression through Play

Written By: Vic Rebman Ph.D - Aug• 27•13

By Lauren Rebman LMFTA

As I continue to grow professionally (and personally) in my private practice, I have come to realize that a vast majority of my younger clients are struggling with a lack of emotional management skills.  Their struggle to understand how to express their emotions and thoughts appropriately greatly effects their behaviors and relationships with their family and peers.  Their anxieties, frustrations, and discomforts manifest into temper tantrums, causing parents to focus on decreasing the maladaptive behavior while not knowing that they may be ignoring a significant underlying issue: a lack of emotional management skills.  So, in the last few months, I have been on a mission to find creative psycho-educational exercises to complete with children for the purpose of increasing their knowledge of how to express themselves effectively and appropriately.

Often, when young children throw a temper tantrum, they are attempting to express an uncomfortable emotion.  Since children are not developmentally able to express themselves verbally as efficiently and effectively as what may be necessary, often they cannot find the words to describe their feelings.  Of course, there are other aspects and dimensions that may contribute to a tantrum (hunger, lack of sleep, physical discomfort, environmental contributors, etc), but in my work I have found that the underlying issue to their maladaptive behavior usually lies with their lack of knowledge on how to express themselves!

Recently, I read a book by Susan P. Epstein, LCSW, entitled Over 60 Techniques, Activities, & Worksheets for Challenging Children and Adolescents.  I have really enjoyed this book.  It has allowed me to get my creative juices flowing and I have come up with a few new, exciting activities I’ve enjoyed implementing into my practice.

My favorite activity focuses on using colors to facilitate emotional expression.  Rather than using words to express themselves (which is often very difficult for young children to do), they can take a color that corresponds with an emotion and draw a picture to express themselves.  For example, the color blue symbolizes sadness, yellow symbolizes happiness, and red represents anger.  Recently, I purchased good ole’ Play-Doh and the kids love using a combination of sculpture and color to express their emotions!  They are even disappointed to leave when our session is over because they have enjoyed themselves so much!  Talk about taking an opportunity to turn what could have been a stressful discussion for a child into a fun, stress-relieving activity!

If you know of a child who may be lagging in their understanding of emotional expression, I encourage you to try this exercise with them.  It is very simple and the kids love it.  It may even be beneficial for you as well!  Note: Remind yourself to be “emotionally responsive” to their sculptures.  Encourage them.  Build them up.  If done correctly, your relationship with that child will surely grow!

Remember, we want our children to know that uncomfortable emotions are ok.  Even though negative emotions don’t feel good, they can’t be avoided in this world.  As we grow into teens and adults, we can find some pretty scary, dysfunctional ways to express ourselves.  Let’s teach our children at a young age how to do it in an appropriate, healthy way.

“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” – Plato

“Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.” – Mark Twain

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