For Parents: Identifying Problematic Play

In my practice working with parents of child trauma survivors, the issue of posttraumatic play often arises.  Parents sometimes don’t understand what posttraumatic play is.  Some of the questions I’ve heard include:

  • “When my child plays “doctor” with his or her friends, does that mean they’ve been sexually abused?”
  • “I read that children who have been sexually abused typically use red and black in artwork; my child often uses those colors. Should I be worried?”
  • “My child’s play is concerning me; how do I know if they’re reenacting some element of a traumatic event(s)?”

In this entry, I’m going to identify some features of posttraumatic play.  To be perfectly honest, my hope is to lay some of your fears to rest.  Most children display some themes of aggression or violence, sexuality, and power at various times throughout their development.  Introduction of this content into play does not necessarily indicate abuse!  In fact, as you’ll see in the following descriptions, it is not the content of the play that is the most important, but the process or experience of the play that is problematic in posttraumatic play.

Two final points before launching into a description of posttraumatic play.  First, no single symptom can predict a history of abuse or trauma.  No matter how disturbing your child’s play, this by itself does not conclusively indicate a history of trauma.  That being said, children’s play is important.  Children use play to develop mastery and practice problem-solving.  Play builds their self-esteem and social skills, and helps them learn how to manage their emotions.  Disruptions in play are worth your attention.  Below are some typical characteristics of posttraumatic play.

1.  It’s repetitive.  Children are typically creative and play evolves and changes naturally.  Posttraumatic play, on the other hand, is repetitive—both within and across play sessions.

Max* is a six-year-old boy who has been abused for approximately two years before being removed from his home by child protective services.  Each week in therapy, Max plays with a king and queen puppet.  He animates them to engage in the same sequence of cruel behaviors toward each other and the other toys in the playroom.  When he finishes this sequence, he shouts, “again!” and repeats it.

2.  It’s avoidant. Children who have not experienced trauma usually involve trusted adults in their play.  Posttraumatic play, on the other hand, is often secret or hidden from others.  These children may avoid physical closeness with the adult in an attempt to keep the posttraumatic play hidden.

Grayson* is a three-year-old boy who witnessed a violent crime involving an infant.  Grayson is happy to play with his foster-mother or the therapist during play sessions, but at various points in the play he will take a doll to the far corner of the room and turn his back to the adult with him.  He begins whispering to the baby, and playing with it secretly.  The therapist says, “Grayson, I wonder what you are playing over there in the corner?” He turns around, saying “it’s a secret.”  Several minutes later he finishes with his secret doll play, and returns to begin a new play sequence with the therapist and his foster-mother.

3. It’s intense. Posttraumatic play often feels intense and driven.  You might get the feeling that the child is compelled to play a certain story or game rather than freely choosing it.  The child may appear hyper-focused.  This play usually lacks the “playful” quality that marks typical play.


4. It’s disrupted. Play disruptions are when a child is suddenly unable to play.  This disruption can be either sudden or gradual. When children are engaged in posttraumatic play, the play will often stop abruptly.  In my experience, this usually happens at the height of the play-related conflict, and the play-related conflict remains unresolved.

Asleigh* is an eight-year-old girl whose car was hijacked while she and her mother were parked at a stoplight.  She is playing cops and robbers at home.  She ties up her dolls and places them in the middle of the living room.  She pretends to pull out a gun and points it at the dolls.  She appears agitated and aroused; her face is red and her breathing is heavy.  She shouts, “I’m gonna, I’m gonna get you!  I’m—“ Ashleigh suddenly stops playing and freezes.  Her mother comes into the living room to see what has disrupted Ashleigh, but she finds her daughter sitting on the couch.  Ashleigh asks her mother if she can go to her room to take a nap.

5.  It’s not fun. Typically developing children have fun when they play.  Even if they are playing out a “negative” story or theme, they enjoy expressing these feelings and inhabiting those roles.  Posttraumatic play, on the other hand, isn’t fun.  Children do not enjoy it; they feel compelled to do it.
In short, it is not the content of the play that is most important, although the content can, at times, offer some insight into a child’s world.  It is the process of the play that differs when a child is experiencing posttraumatic play.   The take away: play should be fun and free!  And finally, trust your gut: if you think something’s wrong with your child’s play, seek help.

*Note: The children in these vignettes represent composites of children with whom I have worked over the years.  Any similarity to persons or events is purely coincidental.


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One Response to For Parents: Identifying Problematic Play

  1. Pingback: Assessing Posttraumatic Play | Lauren E. Maltby, M.A.

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