Children love to play and do so naturally and without being self-conscious. Below is a story that illustrates the deep emotional bonds that children form through play. Personal details have been changed to protect privacy.
A Story of Children’s Friendship
Several years ago, took my 8 year old daughter to visit our close friends in our old home town. We had moved from there more than a year ago and the girls had been inseparable friends before. My daughter had changed from a ballet dancer dressed in frills and sparkles to a tomboy who loved softball, running & cycling. Her tomboyish friend was now a star cheerleader & she had a new baby sister. The two girls had barely said hello when they were off running and gallivanting around the house, making up plays, throwing balls, jumping on the trampoline, playing school with their American Girl dolls and bowling on the WII.
The two friends had missed each other a great deal, been through some difficult experiences and some growth-producing ones. The separation was painful for both of them. There were many changes for the girls to process, yet they did so without talking about them directly. Through role play and skill-based games they naturally reconnected and learned about each other as they now were. The girls’ focus on having fun in the moment led them to accept each other unconditionally. Only occasionally would they jokingly refer to previous selves or memories of playing together before.
Adults in the same situation are often more awkward and more tentative. They sum each other up first and make momentary evaluative judgments. Are you now thinner, fatter, richer, poorer? Do we still have anything in common? Was there enough staying in touch and reciprocation? While in most cases, the friendship is still solid, adults may take longer to connect again. In children’s ability to lose themselves in the moment, unconditional acceptance is born. “I’m here.” “I’m here too.”. “Great! Now let’s go have fun! ” How wonderful it would be if we adults could preserve that sense of flow and playful exploration in our relationships. Adults do sometimes find that special friend or partner that they can be themselves with in a childlike way. The person who knows you well and accepts you for who you really are. The person who hugs you when you are sad and celebrates your successes with you. And, luckily, this was the case for me with this child’s mom. So we adults could “play” too, by talking and laughing and connecting amid the chaos of family life.
The Importance of Nurturing Your Inner Child
Many patients come into therapy having lost touch with their inner children. Those inner children, having been hurt, rejected, ignored, or made to grow up too soon, become angry voices that burst out loudly at awkward moments or with inappropriate intensity. In therapy we help our clients to give their inner children permission to come out and speak their needs. Be these needs for comfort, connection, peace, play or expression, clients need to learn that feelings and needs are an integral part of their experience of living and cannot just be suppressed or shut down. How many alcohol and drug problems, eating disorders, and depressive episodes could we prevent by allowing our children just to be and to play without judging, criticizing, controlling, over-scheduling, pressuring, neglecting, or abusing them? Mental imagery, creative writing, mindfulness, or asking questions that engage imagination and connect with clients’ own metaphors can be used to reconnect clients with their childlike sense of playful exploration. We can encourage clients to connect with nature or to take time to nurture themselves. Nurturing your inner child in this way makes you feel happier, more open, and more alive. In this space, you can more freely connect with other people and with your own authentic self in a spirit of playful exploration. Ironically, we can help clients to mature psychologically by teaching them how to be playful!