Sometimes feelings get…all tangled up. This can be confusing and sometimes we need help untangling them and sorting them all out. Enter “The Color Monster” by Anna Llenas! This book is AMAZING and as I talk about here and here bibliotherapy is such a wonderful practice that is so adaptable to provide as a therapeutic approach in all sorts of settings – office, in home, at school, and of course Tele-Play!
This book is a wonderful story about a “Color Monster” who is full of mixed up colors and emotions. A little girl takes the monster by the hand and gently helps the Color Monster untangle and separate out all of these feelings and put them into jars.
The level of compassion in this book is SO wonderful. One of my favorite things to tell young people is that feelings aren’t good or bad – they are just our bodies way of letting us know what is going on in the world around us! For a lot of the littles (and teens too) that we work with there can be a lot of judgement that comes with anger and a portion of the therapeutic work can go towards decreasing shame about this real, normal, human emotion. This makes sense as to why my most favorite line in the book is “Sometimes, you want to take out your anger on others. But I’ll be nice to you, Color Monster, and your anger will disappear!”. My heart just melts on this page!
The book also emphasizes being able to feel and honor whatever feeling comes up and tell us that it is OK to feel all of these feelings, it is okay to listen to our bodies, and it is okay to cry! So powerful, especially for young people who often get flooded and want to repress feelings.
Another thing that is just fantastic about this book is the use of metaphor. It compares anger to a fire you might want to stomp out, sadness to a rainy day, and calm like leaves swaying in the wind. If you are doing any sort of metaphor work with kids this is a GREAT book to get the wheels turning!
When I am reading this with young people after I will pause, ask them what they noticed, and most of the time go into a Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy activity about feeling identification and levels! I have included a free download of these worksheets HERE! I had so much fun creating these printables and thank goodness for all the Amazon packages I have been getting lately - there was no shortage of cardboard for this project!
So, after we read the book I have them select colors (up to eight - but let's be honest you could add more boxes and print a duplicate of the feelings jar page if you needed more) and color code and write in what feelings came up for them today or in the week using The Color Monster Check In download. The book identifies five feelings of happy, sad, angry, fearful, and calm, but I wanted to make sure if other feelings came up there would be space for them so I included eight.
One thing to notice is how the feelings are being drawn. As opposed to a color your heart activity (where the feelings are separate) the Color Monster’s feelings can be mixed up. Are some feelings darker (like pressed down harder when drawing) and what feeling are more prevalent? Do some feelings have just one line and are there obvious feelings that are missing? Do the feelings spill out of the color monster and onto the rest of the page? These are all great things to notice and process along with how it feels in their bodies when the feelings are mixed up, any thoughts that might come up for the Color Monster, and the choices the monster may make when feeling all mixed up! Oh, it is also a fantastic externalizing technique!
The next sheet is all about taking time to separate out and honor each feeling. With the My Feeling Jar worksheet you can clearly identify each feeling experienced and how much of each feeling. You can go deeper with young people and identify triggers, how they felt it in their bodies, warning signs of these feelings, and choices that might be helpful vs unhelpful to honor what is going on for them over the week.
This exercise is also a great tracking technique. If you engage in this activity with clients periodically how does their Color Monster change over time? What about levels or ranges of feelings? Does their emotional literacy increase where they could initially name three feelings, but now it’s five?
Now, although this activity is for younger children, teens also have tangled up emotions too! The teen version of this? This fantastic Tangled Ball of Emotions Download you can snag HERE from Sources of Strength. I have been using this drawing activity for a prompt of how teens feel currently and having them fill out a second for how they desire to feel. From that point we can spring board off into processing how to get from here to there!
Here’s hoping this activity brings you and your clients some superpowers to help untangle those messy, chaotic, and confusing feelings!
Want more training on how to use Bibilotherapy in your Play Therapy practice? Check out this training HERE!
The overwhelm from COVID-19 is real. And the thing about COVID-19 is it's not just one thing - it's everything. I wanted to share one of the techniques I have been using with my middle schoolers and teenagers during Tele-Play sessions to help them try to make sense of the impact of COVID-19 on when it is SO HARD as adults to wrap our heads around.
When I am doing a COVID-19 worry web, the session usually starts with a check in of how a young person's week is going. When I can hear the overwhelm and exhaustion I will usually stop and ask them if it’s okay if I chart out what I am noticing as they talk. I usually use a plain white sheet of paper and pen and get to work! I haven’t had anyone say no at this point, but I guess if they did I would pivot and on to the next activity that would make sense.
As they start talking we brainstorm all the things that might be leading to the feelings of overwhelm, confusion, stress, exhaustion, the changes that have been happening in their lives, and things that they took for granted that they would do anything for now. I have had SO many young people who really disliked school for one reason or another (social anxiety, bullying, learning difficulties) who are actually wanting to go back to the classroom. OR hated running errands with their parent - but now are craving to go to a store - any store - even the hardware store! How confusing is that for a young person?
Usually I start with a circle in the middle (like the picture above) with COVID-19 inside. The bigger categories I have found as young people are talking usually look something like this (but are definitely not limited to):
And from here – the sky is the limit. The picture above is just a tiny fraction of what someone might have on their COVID-19 worry web (don’t worry this web is not based on any specific client). The ripple effect is enormous. I have to social distance, so I can't go to school, and I can't see my friends, and I don't have their information so I have barely any social connections outside of my family. OR I have to social distance so I can't go to school, which means my softball season is cancelled, and I can't participate in my senior year of sports so I may never play softball again. So powerful. So much grief.
After we have exhausted all the possibilities and connections, which a lot of the time takes up most of the session, I then hold up the drawing for the young person to see. The final product looks like a less polished and put together version of the picture above, with scribbled words, smushed together bubbles, and frantic lines. Usually we sit with the feeling in our bodies of what it is like to look at this web. There is often first surprise or shock and then a settling into understanding. Understanding of why they might be so overwhelmed, angry, want to cry, or just want to sleep all the time. It's a moment where they can reflect - "Oh I guess I do understand why I am feeling this way - it all makes sense now."
We then process that sometimes with a big worry web like this we can feel stuck in the web, much like a spider web, and we can talk about what it feels like that every move we make or want to make is connected to this web in some way. It’s so important to sit with the feeling of stuckness and honor it.
Then – on to solutions! How the heck are we going to get unstuck? And this my friends, is usually a whole other session. Perhaps some reflective homework? Most definitely!
I like to say that I was “born for the tray”. I spent my childhood collecting actual sand from beach vacations, carrying pounds of it hundreds of miles home in backpacks on cars and planes (and through airport security), and collecting tons of knick knacks. What a wonderful surprise when I found out that these knick knacks actually were something very valuable called miniatures and I would grow in my adult life to collect hundreds of them for my job! And some of those knick knacks from childhood? They sit on my sand tray miniature shelves in my office today.
When shifting to virtual sessions one of the things I have such a hard time transitioning was the power of Sandtray. There are so many great ideas for virtual technology trays like Virtual Sandtray but at $169.99 I had a difficult time committing. Other therapists have gotten creative and used a Whiteboard App or Paint3D for free to create visual worlds with clients through screen share.
For me, while digital is an amazing alternative for still utilizing Sandtray with clients while you are engaging in Tele-Play, it was missing the tactile kinesthetic and sensory element that the sand and miniatures in office brings. I wanted to share three ways for those who are not quite tech savvy or who are also missing the sensory and touch experiences of Sandtray to continue to support clients virtually.
Your Own Tray
For this option you literally use your own tray or portable tray and your own miniatures. A major benefit to this is that the children you work with are already familiar with your miniatures and may find comfort, meaning, and metaphor in using miniatures that they previously used in office.
You as the therapist manipulate the sand and select the miniatures and placement – all dictated by the child. Joel Lambrides an LPCC and RPT from Minnesota shows an amazing video of how to set it up HERE! He uses a brilliant fixed camera system (cell phone) that can be placed over the tray to create an aerial view. Another take on this would be a two camera system with a Telemedicine platform that could have more than one “client” where the therapist has both the phone fixed over the tray and another device to maintain eye contact and communication with the child.
Draw Your World
I first talked about this technique HERE. For this type of Sandtray have the client or parent tape together four sheets of computer paper in a rectangle. You can have the client start out by drawing what kind of ground the “tray” will have on the paper. Will it be grass, rocks, lakes, rivers, mountains, or volcanoes? The sky is the limit! Then, do your sand tray work as usual adding in miniatures to tell the story and create the world. I love this technique because it allows clients to be in control and touch, place, and re-arrange the world. How do clients gather miniatures? Don’t worry – keep reading! I have you covered below.
Okay – I saved my favorite for last! For those that know me know that I started out my Sandtray journey with a tray of corn. I have experimented over the years with other mediums besides sand to create trays and have enjoyed seeing the different dynamics that come out with each. SO as I was brainstorming how to help clients get not only the movement and placement control (as with the technique above) I also wanted them to have a sensory experience of sand as well. Do you know what feels kind of similar to sand AND most families either have on hand or can get for a reasonable price? RICE! Most families also have some sort of casserole pan or cake pan – thus the “Sand” Tray of a casserole pan filled with uncooked rice was born! Now – on to the miniatures!
Selecting and Creating Miniatures
Most clients have some sort of miniature collection in their house. These could be action figures, toy soldiers, princesses, or if they are like me – knick knacks! I give clients a list of the categories of toys and encourage them between sessions to go on a hunt for minis. I also assure clients that although it can feel overwhelming they really only need a couple of things for each category. I encourage clients to get creative, go outside, and have an eye out for all things mini!
Now, there are definitely young people who would only be able to find a select few items in their home. That is totally fine! For these children we create! You can spend a session having the client draw figures they want to be in their tray on paper, finding pictures from the internet to print out, or using stickers. You can adhere pictures to small card stock rectangles (with a bit behind for support and a bit sticking out the bottom) or small pieces of popsicle sticks to get them to stick in the sand. For some young people they may need the supervision and help of a parent for cutting out and pasting/taping. For the young people that draw their world, create a flat base on the bottom with paper – like this genius method HERE!
I created a free handout explaining the Draw Your World and “Sand” Tray technique that you can grab to share with clients HERE!
What are your favorite ways that you have used the power of sand in the virtual world? Drop a comment below!
As we are all adjusting to this new “normal for now” season of social distancing and sheltering in place it is important to get clear about how to support one another and regulate through these difficult times. I wrote HERE about all the different response young people may have to COVID-19, which quite frankly was A LOT of different ways young people might react and process this pandemic.
So now you might ask – what next? What do we DO now (besides of course movie marathons)? I’m glad you asked! Below are some ways I have been talking to parents, guardians, and families regarding how to support their children during this time!
Assess Knowledge and Give Age Appropriate Information:
Let’s ask children what they know about COIVD-19. They likely know some things and this is a great way to open up a conversation and to be able to assess if they have accurate information OR if they have thoughts that are maladaptive.
These conversations can happen in therapy sessions or within family conversations. There are some great tips for parents HERE and HERE for how to facilitate these conversations. One of the most important things to know is that as adults we need to manage our anxiety when talking through these difficult topics to create a safe space for kids to explore their own feelings.
Children need to know age appropriate information about what is happening in the world around them and in trauma. Honestly if we don’t give it to them, they will find out about it from someone else who may or may not have accurate information. If parents or therapists are able to facilitate an age appropriate discussions, safe adults control the flow of information – not the next door neighbor who heard something from his cousin who heard it from their best friend, or who knows where else!
Also – children will just plan old MAKE UP information if they do not have accurate information – and not necessarily consciously. One of my favorite Deb Dana quotes is “story follows state”, meaning that we create stories and assign meaning to our dysregulated nervous systems.
It is also important to not just have one conversation about COVID-19 – this is not a one and done topic. Find the healthy balance between flooding children (ie bringing it up multiple times per day) and avoidance (no conversation). Checking in from time to time to see what questions they have or updating on information is essential.
Below are some resources to help explain and process COVID-19 with children:
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Parent/Caregiver Guide To Helping Families Cope With COVID-19
The Story of the Oyster and the Butterfly: The Corona Virus and Me – Free digital book to help children understand COVID-19
Come Inside Bear – a children’s story about social distancing
Our Hero Is YOU – Free digital book to help children understand COVID-19
Assess and Support Family Stress:
As much as I love a good parent check in, I have been taking much care to check in more so with family systems these last weeks and will continue to do so. I strongly believe that parents are the most important people in their child’s lives, and now more than ever, they are holding the container and structure for their child’s wellbeing. The concept that you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others and as mental health professionals is so important, because we need to make sure we are supporting and regulating the family system so the system can regulate the child. This might mean extending sessions or adding additional sessions in the week to make sure families are getting the support they need.
Validate and Express Feelings:
All feelings are OK! I love to say that our feelings are our bodies compasses for what is going on in the world around us. This is also along the lines of Dr. Dan Siegel’s “Name it to tame it” concept!
There is also so much grief and loss in COVID-19, beyond the physical lives that will be lost. The play that never was performed, the vacation that was cancelled, the graduation ceremony that was missed, and the grandparents that can’t be squeezed. Emotions will cycle, things will become repressed and “come out sideways”, and sometimes things will feel stuck.
As adults it is also so important that we model these feelings for children. That we can own, talk about, and name the feelings as well as show children how to regulate in a way that is helpful. I am having a lot of conversations with families about practicing relaxation and calming techniques together as part of the routine. This might include deep breaths, family game night, walks, a family gratitude practice, meditation, or dance parties!
Routine And Structure – But Not Rigidity:
I love the saying “trauma is chaos structure is healing” and I have used that quite a bit these last couple weeks. Creating a routine and consistency, and continuing with routines already in place, can significantly benefit our nervous system by letting it know what to expect. There is definitely comfort in routine. In addition to a schedule that is visual, it might be really helpful and necessary to go over this with children verbally at several points through the day. Get to the point where children roll their eyes and say “I know, I know” – this is the sweet spot where they know exactly what to expect!
On the other hand, step away from rigidity and have realistic expectations of what might be accomplished in the day, knowing that our nervous systems are all on high alert likely leading to those things I talk about HERE including anxiety, anger, fixations, rumination, etc. We will likely not be at our most productive and running at optimal performance – and that is okay. Children (especially because we may be spending more time in our brainstem where it is really hard to learn anything new) will likely not be taking up basket weaving, mastering a new language, or excelling at gymnastics during this time. Identify the bare minimum, good enough, and go with that. It is also okay if you are 10 minutes late for lunch, need to shorten the hour bike ride to a half hour, or wake up around breakfast-ish not at 6am like planned! Everyone in this time needs a little grace.
Physical Distance NOT Social Distance
Even though we can’t occupy the same physical space as others it is so important as humans to connect with one another. What were the activities that children were engaging in before COVID-19? Can we get creative and move some of these online? I have seen AMAZING things with transitioning to all virtual Play Therapy BUT am also seeing other communities rally as well! I have seen virtual dance classes, karate, choirs, and occupational therapy! How can we help children connect with others through video chat platforms, community challenges such as this free downloadable Lego Challenge, or a weekly lunch or tea date with grandparents or best friends?
Move Your Body
This one I cannot emphasize enough. With all the cortisol and adrenalin building up in our bodies due to the stress response we likely all have to some degree these chemicals need to be burned off by movement. Now, these chemicals are meant to be burned off by running for our lives or fighting for it BUT dance parties, jumping on the trampoline, yoga, bike rides, and walking the dog will work too! These ones are also A LOT more fun!
And as I have been saying a lot lately *with humor of course* – what else do you have to do?
What are your favorite ways of COVID-19 Coping for either yourself, your families, or the children you work with? Drop a comment below!
One of the biggest topics in my virtual office these past few weeks has been normalizing children’s stress response to COVID-19. Families I work with range from seeing restrictions as an annoyance to full on panic, but nearly all of them realize that this is something new and uncharted for children, our nation, and the world. Even the healthiest and most well-regulated children and families are feeling the impact.
Okay – brace yourself – 99.9% of children in the world today, in this moment, live with some form of pandemic related movement restriction. For many families this comes with an increase difficulty in getting nutritional, education, financial, and safety needs met among others.
Past research has shown us that during times of health emergencies leading to closing of schools and other social services resources, children are at heightened risk for exploitation, violence, and abuse. And additionally, those young people who needed the support of a strong special education team to meet their needs are left without crucial services and at high risk for falling behind or further behind. All of this is an additional to the anxiety, fears, and rumination about the pandemic in general – especially for children who have parents that are essential workers or work in the medical field and need to leave the home or who love and care about someone who would be at high risk for infection. Let’s face it – that definition encompasses most children.
So here is the other thing –although we know children will be impacted by the pandemic, we can’t assume that all children will have a trauma response. Although we can agree that COVID-19 and the global impact of this pandemic is traumatic – it depends on children’s perceptions if a trauma response will develop. The child that thinks “Everyone I love will die” will likely have a different reaction than the child that thinks “I know we are doing everything we can to keep safe”. The child who has had one or more family members pass away from COVID-19 in a community with a high infection rate such as New York is likely to have a different response than a child from a rural community that has had low rates of infection.
Every child will react a slightly different way to COVID-19. The good news is there are no right or wrong ways to feel – all feelings and behaviors are the bodies way trying to make sense, process, and regulate as well as meet our needs. While some choice may be unhelpful – all behavior is purposeful – an attempt to get to a regulated and safe state. It is through this lens that we can gain an increased understanding of what is driving the behaviors so we can problem solve alternatives.
To be honest, some children may LOVE the fact that they get more time with their parents and the decrease in transitions from home to school and activities. They might enjoy the fact that they don’t have to go to a school where they get bullied or have significant separation anxiety. Young people may also like the fact that everyone else can’t go out without them, and they don’t have to see social media pictures of hangouts, movies, or birthday parties they weren’t invited to. For those with social anxiety, it is a welcome break to engage with others from behind a screen and not having the pressure of being called on in class.
For other children these feelings of positivity and relief will definitely not be the case. They may be angry, tantrums may increase, or irritability may come out. Toys may be broken, names called, and art work ripped up. Children may hyper-focus on the small things in an attempt to gain some form of control. All of a sudden it becomes really important to have a certain brand of cereal or they HAVE to wear their favorite shirt even thought it is in the laundry. If it doesn’t go their way, it may seem like their anger comes out of nowhere, big and explosive. Also, in an attempt to gain control, there might be a spike in noncompliance of expected tasks. The simplest thing may turn into an all-out battle.
Some kids have hyper focus on anxiety triggers and will spin out and ruminate on minor triggers. One of my favorite Deb Dana quotes is “story follows state” – meaning that our brains will create stories or reasons WHY our nervous system is dysregulated. Oh – that math assignment you didn’t turn in last year? The cookie you took from the grocery store at age 7? When you said something mean about your friend on the playground earlier this year? YES! That is why you are anxious! And sometimes our brain feels like if we can just solve this problem in front of us everything will be better!
For me this week it was trying to find a note I had written on an index card leading me to tear apart up and down my home “office”. Where did I find this note? Not at all on an index card, but actually on a post-it turned upside down on my desk. Spoiler alert – finding the note didn’t regulate my nervous system.
Other times anxiety can take over in an attempt to gain control by becoming very focused on routine, structure, or placement. Sometimes children (and adults too) convince themselves that they will regulate if their routine doesn’t change, their books are in the right place, or when nobody switches chairs at the dining room table. There can be sadness, meltdowns, and tears if things are out of place.
There can also just be sadness in general. A down mood, feeling slowed down, and concentration can be difficult. You might give a child instructions 3 to a zillion times and they might not be able to focus enough to finish a task. Other kids might get jumpy, have a flight energy, and be constantly moving their bodies.
Kids also might feel flooded or overwhelmed by the range of feelings and just want to check out or disconnect and numb from their body. This could look like binge watching TV shows, getting sucked into video games, or even the child that is re-reading the whole series or Harry Potter again barely coming out of their room to eat. You might also hear that kids are bored or there is “nothing to do”. Nothing brings joy or excitement.
Also, because most of our nervous systems are on high alert and likely pumping out large amounts of cortisol and adrenaline children can get tired, lethargic, and oversleep. A lot of young people are pushing bed times to later at night and sleeping in later in the day. Other kids may put all of their effort and energy into SOMETHING like organizing their rooms or planning their fairy garden for the summer.
Other young people may have regressive behaviors. This is when emotional or physical responses regress or "go backwards" to an earlier age. This might mean talking in a way that is younger than their age, clinging to safety objects like a blanket, sucking thumbs again, waking up in the middle of the night, having bathroom accidents, or being unable to sleep on their own.
Whatever the response, and let's be honest - the range is wide, the hope is we can have compassion for all the ways we are trying to make sense of these times. Hope that we can meet children where they are at and help create a felt sense of safety and co-regulation.
I SO want to keep the ball rolling on this conversation - leave a comment about what other responses have you seen within yourself, your family, or the children you work with!
Our nervous system is constantly scanning the world looking for cues of danger or safety. Neuroception is our nervous system’s ability to distinguish situations as either safe, dangerous, or life threatening and operates completely outside of our conscious awareness. And man, our bodies are working hard! I have seen statistics anywhere from 11 million to 400 billion bits of sensory data that our bodies take in PER SECOND!
What we also know about our nervous systems is that they can “talk” to one another and provide a co-regulatory capacity with one another. In her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy Deb Dana states that “it is through reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states that we feel safe to move into connection and create trusting relationships”. In essence, it is the foundation of safety, which is the foundation of a trusting therapeutic relationship.
OK – so how the heck do we do this when we are not meeting face to face, but screen to screen?
I strongly believe that we can still provide co-regulation and safety cues from afar. Just like when I felt safe and cared for when I entered the world of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood as a child, how I instantly calm at the sound of my mother's voice on the phone or hearing my favorite song OR how I feel as though I am literally going to DIE when watching a horror movie – I believe that we can also take in cues or danger or safety through our screens and at a distance. Below are my tips on how I create safety for my clients I see virtually!
Create A Secure Space
Guarding the safety of the Tele-Play space is crucial. I explain to parents and children that we are going to treat our time together the same as we would in office. Just like a parent would not come into my office to drop off laundry during our play therapy session we need to orient families to take the therapy time as serious and sacred when we are engaging virtually.
I know I definitely would not feel safe if my brother, mother, or grandpa were wondering around in the background of my intense therapy session. Creating a safe secure space comes from orienting clients, creating expectations, and brainstorming – what do they need to feel safe? What kind of room do they need to meet in? For some clients they may need to be on a different floor, in a room different than their own, or in a room that is locked (when appropriate of course). Oh – and sometimes they need a nerf gun, to be under a table, or in a blanket fort. All of this is wonderful!
One of my favorite statements from my training in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was “trauma is chaos – structure is healing”. In her book, Lisa Dion also refers to “the unknown” as one of the four threats of the nervous system. With creating structure we are making the unknown known. Creating structure means beginning and ending your sessions in the exact same way each session so the child knows exactly what to expect. My in-office sessions have this structure, so much so that when I am doing CCPT and making my entry to the playroom statement my clients will say “I know already”. I smile and take this as a huge victory that I have created predictability and structure.
I attempt to create the same structure as I have in my office of a check in and then transition to whatever play therapy modality I am using. The 5-minute warning of our play time being over again serves another anchor point for structure. In Tele-Play sessions I have created an ending ritual of containment of toys and the “wave off” where the child goes to get the parent and we wave as we end the session. In office this usually looks like the consistency and structure of picking from my treasure box, the walk to the lobby, and the wave goodbye. Whatever this looks like for you in Tele-Play create a structure so strong that your clients can read the script for you!
Just like in office therapy – if we are not present and we are out of our window of tolerance our clients will feel that and also become dysregulated. Incongruence is also a cue of danger - we can't just fake it – when you as a therapist are frustrated, anxious, or out of your window of tolerance and trying to say that things are “fine” or put on a smile our clients know that something is off and will start to become anxious or dysregulated. This is also what Carl Rogers would refer to as genuine – a core condition of therapy!
So make your best attempt to figure out what you need in between sessions and during sessions to regulate your nervous system so you can be regulated and genuine. Lisa Dion is fantastic at emphasizing the importance of connecting to and feeling your body as well as discharging nervous system energy through body movement during sessions.
So - does regulating yourself mean eating something crunching between sessions? Swaying and moving during your time with the child? Stretching and going for a quick walk after you click off? Deep breathing or meditation exercises? The great news is there is a gigantic buffet of regulation skills options out there – find what works for you!
Send Social Cues of Safety and Co-regulation
This Co-Regulation Quick Guide is ahhhh-mazing. If you don’t know Justin Sunseri and The Polyvagal Podcast – you need to! Sending out what he refers to as “safe and social cues” is really just good therapy and what most of us do outside of our conscious awareness. BUT doing therapy screen to screen you might need to up your game and your intentionality. The good news is that most of us can see ourselves on camera and we might need to check in once and a while to see what signals we are sending our clients! Sometimes we need to over emphasize a bit so they can pick up our gestures or expressions OR raise our hand gestures so they are on the screen.
So the first safe and social cue I love is vocal prosody – making sure your vocal range goes up and down. In short it is what I talk to parents about having a “kindergarten teacher voice”. A flat monotone voice can actually send a cue of danger. This is why a lot of our clients will say that their parents are “yelling” at them, only to have their parent come back stating that they were simply “asking” them to do something. That monotone voice can really feel like yelling to a lot of the young people we work with.
Other safety cues that are really applicable to Tele-Play are smiles, eye crinkles, and head tilts. Hear me out here – if you are in danger your eyes will be wide open, you will have pursed or flattened lips, and your head will be upright and alert. Definitely ready and activated to take on danger. Relaxed, engaged, and congruent facial expression is a cue of safety – BUT only if you actually feel this way. Remember incongruence is a cue of danger. Also a forward leaning posture can send a social cue of connection, so you may need to figure out how much of your body needs to be seen on camera for clients to pick up these social cues. Lastly - safe, soft, and empathetic eye contact (as opposed to a piercing stare) happens staring directly into your computer's camera. A bit awkward as it prevents you from fully taking in your client's social and facial cues BUT really important for them to see you looking at them.
Because our nervous system takes in so many bits of sensory data per second (see above) visual clutter can be overwhelming. Make sure what your clients see is neat and tidy and if you can go with a wall color that is light and soothing like greens or blues and stay away from bold or activating colors (like orange or red). Tapestries are also an awesome and inexpensive way to create the scenery you might want to hang in the background. Any elements from you can bring in from nature are a huge bonus and if possible use natural light. Art is also really important and pictures of water or nature will have a regulatory effect!
So that’s a wrap of my favorite ways to create safety in Tele-Play sessions directly from Mr. Rogers, The Polyvagal Theory greats, and trial and error! What are your favorite ways that you are creating safety in Tele-Play sessions with clients? Drop a comment below!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.