Theraplay®: Changing the World One Playful Interaction at a Time | by Nancy Soliz

ID 87738431 © Konstantin Yuganov |

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

Mother Teresa

For the twelfth time this morning, I am telling my daughter to get her shoes on or we will be late for school. She fumbles again trying to find the right pair of shoes to complete her ensemble while scarfing down an EggoTM on the way out the door.   I have pleaded with her, I have bargained, and dare say I have raised my voice to get us in the car. My daughter has ignored me, refused my request, and shed a few tears before the seat belt was reluctantly clicked. On the drive to school, we are both feeling frustrated with our morning, and honestly with each other. These moments in parenting are not my favorite. Fortunately, these moments are not very frequent as I have found ways to help in nurturing our attachment and the importance of our connection throughout the day and our relationship.

What is Attachment and Why Is It So Important in Parenting?

Attachment can be both a simple and a complex topic to describe. In its simplest form, attachment is a feeling of being connected to someone or something else. We can have an attachment to our favorite restaurant, that perfect pair of jeans, or that one seat in the conference room that provides just the right amount of obstruction that prevents us from being called to share in staff meetings.   These attachments can help us feel a sense of safety and security, but attachment with objects or things does not provide the complexity that attachment with others does. An attachment to an object is a one-sided relationship. We don’t have to think much about what the other thing needs or wants to be adequately attached. The addition of another person adds complexity. This complexity grows exponentially in the caregiver-child attachment. Numerous studies show that the parent-child bond is more than a parent just providing for a child’s basic needs. (See Harlow’s Monkeys or studies on orphanages where babies receive little to no physical contact.)   This need for authentic connection to our children is biological, and needed for our survival.

To have a secure attachment, many things are happening in our brains. When thinking about the infant-parent relationship, let’s consider an interaction of a feeding as attachment building. As a parent, we may notice our child getting upset and showing signs of hunger by turning their head and trying to suck on their hand. When this happens, we pick up the baby and meet that need. During the feeding, we interact with the baby by giving knowing smiles, eye contact, and praise for their uniqueness. This interaction over and over again builds regulation. Regulation is the ability for a child to gain control over their body and emotional state. Infants and children rely on a caregiver to help in building a regulation process. This process is called co-regulation. As with my interaction with my daughter, my inability in the moment to regulate my body cause her to become further dysregulated. This is because children rely heavily on adults in their lives to co-regulate with them.

As parents, it is most helpful to be able to attune to our children in order to help with co-regulation. In the example of the infant-parent feeding, attunement is when the parent started to see the cues from the infant before they started crying to meet the need. For some parents, both co-regulation and attunement can be fairly simple to achieve most of the time. Maybe as a child, you had a consistent and caring caregiver that provided a secure attachment, and were given the blueprints on how to attach to your child in a very natural way. For other parents, you may have had a rocky start in your own relationship with your parents and are trying to do things differently with your own children.   Perhaps as a parent you experienced a secure attachment, but things went awry somewhere in your relationship with your child. Maybe the child is adopted, has a different temperament or behaviors, or even a trauma has strained this ability to connect. For those people, Theraplay® may be a treatment model to consider in helping your child with regulation and nurturing a loving parent-child attachment.

What Makes Theraplay® Work on Attachment and Behaviors?

Theraplay® is included on the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an evidenced-based practice. In lay terms, this means that a lot of research has been done to show that the model is effective. The model is considered a dyadic model in which both the caregiver and child are actively involved. After an initial assessment with the parent and child, the parent and Theraplay® practitioner meet to discuss the relational interactions of the assessment. Both the assessment and treatment are focused on four key dimensions of a parent-child relationship:

  • Structure – The ability for the child to feel safe with the adult in the lead and the child to follow the adult’s direction. The parent is also confident in their role as a leader and is able to relay clear expectations to the child.
  • Engagement – The ability to be fully present with the other. When fully engaged, the parent is attuned to the child’s needs.
  • Nurture – The ability for the parent to provide physical touch, safety, and care to the child and for the child to receive affection and care.
  • Challenge – The ability for the parent to challenge their child in an age-appropriate way, while the child is able to feel confident in trying to rise to the challenge whether or not they can meet their goal.

As you can see, all dimensions have an ‘if then, then that’ aspect of a relationship. All sessions are recorded so that parents can meet with the clinician to view nuances of the attachment relationship that can be modified in session and beyond. Throughout the parent sessions, regulation and dysregulation are topics in which the parent and practitioner discuss how their individual child achieves optimal regulation to help with any behavioral problems that may be occurring at home or school. When the child feels comfortable and secure in their relationship with their parent while the parent also feels confident and connected with their child, lasting change can occur.

Tonight, when I get the chance to see my daughter after work, I will work on repairing our relationship. We both need time to reconnect and attune with each other after a difficult morning. I want to take care of her and help her feel nurtured and safe. I also need to take that time for myself as well. As I look back now, I realize I needed to work on regulating myself in that moment so that she can co-regulate with me. As a parent, it is my job to care for myself and create time for self-reflection, finding a space where I can feel nurtured, safe, and optimally regulated. This parenting journey isn’t always easy, but it is so incredibly worth it.   One of my favorite quotes on the importance of this journey was spoken by Mother Teresa, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” We can change the world through parenting, and if you want assistance on the journey, I would encourage you to find a qualified Theraplay® practitioner in your area.

~ Nancy Soliz ~
Licensed Marital & Family Therapist
Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor
Certified Theraplay® Practioner

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