This Is How to Use Play to Reveal Your Kid’s Feelings

boy with stuffed toy
By Dejan Dundjerski/shutterstrock

My four and a half year old son began kindergarten at a NYC public school last September.  While I knew that this would be an adjustment for him, I naively underestimated its magnitude.  Despite our preparations throughout the summer, his first few days were extremely tearful, anxiety-ridden and overwhelming.

Following his repeated requests-turned-pleadings not to go to school, he provided me with some insight into his perceptions of the place.  He described his “long, long, long day”.  And he reported details like, “You eat lunch in the HUGE room with tons of kids.  To get there, you go down this big, big, big staircase.  You even go to a different room they call a gym.  It’s not like the one that you and Daddy go to; it’s a humungous room with a different teacher.” (Translation: as opposed to the two who are in my classroom who I barely know!)

Each day, his anxiety mounted, his tears began earlier and his supposed stomach aches became more debilitating.

I repeatedly reassured him, “It’s hard to get used to new things.  Kindergarten is new.” – I found this mantra to be beneficial.  He did not!

“Would you stop saying that!” he said angrily.

“Saying what?”

“Those words you keep saying. You keep saying them.  I don’t want to hear them!”

Clearly the words which spoke to me were not helpful to him.

“Let’s try to solve the problem,” I suggested.

“How about, you become a teacher in my classroom or how about you stop taking me there!”

In my clinical work with children, I encourage them to play, rather than talk.  Through this medium, children are better able to express and communicate their feelings.  Their play draws from the unconconcious—the deepest of feelings.  It is a pleasurable and non threatening way to address even the most painful of emotions. Perhaps I should have reminded myself of this professional knowledge as we navigated the early days of kindergarten.

Appropriately, my son decided that he wanted to bring his beloved monkey, Po to school with him the following day.   I knew that the sight, smell and feel of Po would provide a multi-sensory reminder of the comforts of home.  Po could be the “family representative” until my son felt more “at home” at school.

Suddenly, I realized that Po was crying- terrified and resistant to the idea of attending a new school.  I held Po and I attempted to comfort him.  We needed my son’s help with Po’s very scared feelings.

My son came to the rescue immediately.  He stroked Po’s furry head and said compassionately, “Po, are you sad? You miss me when I’m in school?  As soon as the day is over, we can be together.  What? What’s that you say? You want to sit in my cubby and I’ll visit you there when I walk by? Sure I can do that.”

“Mom, “he said confidently, “Po is coming to school with me.  It is too hard for him to be away from me.”

While my son was unable to devise a coping strategy for himself, he was able to access some inner strength for his beloved monkey.   This relationship allowed him to rehearse these newfound skills.  In this pretend scenario, he assumed the role of soother and comforter.  As my son helps Po with his feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness, he empowers and helps himself.

As the empowered duo embark on Week Three of Kindergarten, my son excitedly updates me that Po is “getting more used to school.  He’s making some new friends, but sometimes he still forgets their names.  His teachers are pretty nice and he LOVES gym!”

I suggested to my son that he remind Po of this the next time he starts something new.  Perhaps he could say, “You know Po, it can take awhile to get used to new places”….

“UGHHH, not those words again!”

Article By Dr. Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist

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