Something that has been well-documented in recent times is a steady rise of anxiety in young children, which can lead to behavioural problems, since young children are virtually incapable of processing the anxiety within themselves in a way that fits within the norms of effective emotional regulation. Developmentally, children do not learn to effectively process multiple emotions until they are approximately 8 to 12 years old. This amounts to them being quite unlikely to, before the age of 8, be able to identify or seek relief or comfort from intense or complex emotional experiencing, which can lead to anxiety, which in turn can prompt them to act out in different ways. Often parents will come to therapy to seek answers for these tough questions; how can I help my child reduce anxiety, or (more commonly), how can I stop my anxious child from acting out? Clearly this is a problem that carries much weight, thus much attention has been devoted in the therapeutic world to teaching parents effective tools for helping their child to cope with complex emotions, and an anxiety that can easily overwhelm them.
Research has shown that one tool that has proven to be effective in reducing anxiety in young children is educating parents to engage with their children in Non-Directive Play, also known as Child-Centred Play. Non-Directive Play Therapy has been practiced for years as an effective therapeutic technique to use with young children, and it has subsequently proven to be helpful to a child when therapists can take the time to teach parents or caregivers how to engage in Non-Directive Play at home with the child. Non-Directive Play is a soothing approach to play which dictates that within a pre-determined play structure and pre-established timeline, a child is given ultimate freedom of expression to play as they want to, in the manner they want to and with the items they want to, without being evaluated or analyzed by a parent or caregiver, factors which have been shown to produce anxiety in them. During a Non-Directive Play session a parent will sit with their child in that child’s world of play, and give the child all the space he or she needs to engage in that world as he or she sees fit, with no further instruction given, beyond the pre-determined parameters.
The parent is taught to engage in this by simply learning to notice and describe what their child is doing during the play, without giving any statements of judgement or evaluation, not even in terms of approving or disapproving of what the child is doing. The parent is present merely to observe and reflect a genuine interest in the child’s exploration and activities, which can be demonstrated through a warm manner and a gentle, affirming tone of voice; clear indications of positive regard which allow the child to bask in the attention of his or her parent without having to give an explanation for what he or she is doing during the play, unless he or she decides to offer it. Within this framework, the parent becomes simply a warm and acknowledging presence for the child, while the child is given free reign to play in the allotted space for the allotted time.
Improving Coping Skills
Research has shown that this type of play, when engaged in semi-regularly, can make measured improvements in a child’s ability to cope with anxiety, and increase their sense of self confidence and independence. In their study on the effects of teaching parents to engage in Non-Directive Play with their children, Wilson & Ryan (2001) found that children showed improvement in terms of becoming “more manageable and accept(ing) adult control more readily”. In addition, found Wilson & Ryan (2001), the self-esteem of children may increase through continued use of Non-Directive Play, and with it their social skills, which also may make them more amenable to discipline. Ray, in her 2008 study, also spoke of the positive impacts of Non-Directive Play, noting improvements in children who were exposed to this technique in terms of an increase in their self-concept, an improvement in their anxiety symptoms, markedly better social skills, and a decrease in any clinical behavioural problems.
Another element of what Non-Directive Play has to offer to the anxious child is that it has been shown to help solidify the attachment bond between parent and child. Time and time again, research has demonstrated that a solid attachment bond with a parent or caregiver, or lack thereof, can be a significant factor in a young child’s developing ability to cope with anxiety. In addition, attachment is extremely important to self-confidence; it is often compared to a foundation: the base upon which a child’s relational framework and social skills will be built. Research conducted by Ray (2008) showed that engagement in Non-Directive Play “demonstrated a statistically significant positive effect” on existing stress in the parent-child relationship, showing that it could be very helpful in facilitating a stronger attachment bond overall.
In addition, engaging in Non-Directive Play has been shown to enhance a child’s general sense of safety. The lack of evaluation Non-Directive Play promotes, regardless of whether the evaluation is positive or negative in nature, removes a sense of performance anxiety from a child’s play environment, making it a safer space for exploration and self-discovery. The play itself becomes a much more relaxing and safe activity, once the anxiety tied to a sense of needing to please one’s parent or caregiver is removed from the equation. During Non-Directive Play, a parent will typically not ask questions of any kind, to preserve the safe, exploratory nature of the space that has been created, and he or she will not attempt to prompt the child to answer a question to which the child may simply not have the answer. A safe play space is one within which things do not have to make sense or be qualified or categorized, but can simply be, and be recognized and accepted as they are. It makes sense, therefore, that Non-Directive Play has been shown to lessen a child’s attention-seeking or acting out behavioural patterns, demonstrating the greatest benefit for broad-spectrum behavioural problems, children’s self-esteem, and caregiver–child relationship stress (Lin & Bratton, 2015).
Non-Directive play, while relatively simple in practice, can have incredible benefits for children and parents, which can be seen right away, and projections indicate that these positive impacts will likely continue to be seen throughout a child’s life. The foundation of a more positive self-concept, a general sense of safety and attachment security between parent and child, an ability to better manage anxiety, an increased sense of confidence, an improvement in social skills and a marked decrease in behavioural problems, all measured effects of Non-Directive Play, can make a significant impact in a child’s life, and improve the family system as a whole (Wilson & Ryan, 2001). While the concept is relatively simple, it can be difficult for parents to remove the element of evaluation or curiosity towards their own children, since this desire to positively reinforce them or a curiosity about their child’s imaginative play often feels very natural and automatic for parents. As such, the best way to learn to engage in Non-Directive Play with one’s child is through learning one-on-one with a therapist who is well-versed in the technique. This can also give a parent the confidence to approach the technique with a sense of safety of their own, and the freedom to enjoy that time with their child - truly being able to notice the child’s creativity and demonstrating, simply through their desire to be present, an unconditional acceptance which will help lay the groundwork for that child’s own acceptance of him or herself, and will gently work to replace that child’s anxiety with a sense of peace, comfort and well-being.
Lin, Y. & Bratton, S. C. (2015). A meta-analytic review of child‐centered play therapy approaches. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(1), 45-58.
Ray, D. C. (2008). Impact of play therapy on parent-child relationship stress at a mental health training setting. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 36(2), 165-187.
Wilson, K. & Ryan, V. (2001). Helping parents by working with their children in individual child therapy. Child & Family Social Work, 6(3), 209-217.