Mother and son playing with blocks

As a child life specialist in The UVM Cancer Center, I am witness to families navigating what is likely one of the most stressful experiences they’ve faced: cancer.

Cancer brings with it much uncertainty and loss of the sense of control. The stressors of cancer are not only experienced and felt by the patient, but by the entire family. Often, children are part of the family unit and adults struggle with how to include them after a parent or adult caregiver has been diagnosed. Families wonder how much information to share with children and how to support them in the days and weeks to come. As adults, we often have an instinct to want to protect children from life’s more challenging moments. It’s painful enough to experience them ourselves, but to see our children suffering can feel unbearable.

In an attempt to protect, children can be unintentionally disconnected. Children are great detectives and know when something is different, so the disconnected child can be experiencing the same uncertainty and concern as the adults, but doing so alone without accurate information and without the guidance and support they need. Therefore, helping families in finding the tools to include children, in a way that fits the family’s personal dialogue and comfort level, is an important goal of Child Life Services at the UVM Cancer Center.

It’s from observing families in these moments that my colleague Julia Wick, MS, LCMHC, and I have learned a valuable lesson about how children make meaning of and, ultimately, cope with their life experiences – especially the stressful ones. Most simply put, children play. Children play and through their play they are engaged in some serious work.

  • Play helps children to process and make sense of their experiences.
  • For the careful and patient adult observer, play creates an opportunity for adults to connect with children in a powerful way and to gauge from the child how they are processing their experiences.
  • Play is deeply symbolic. It is often through play that children are exploring frightening subjects using metaphor.
  • Play also provides a sense of control. There is so much about the medical experience that takes away an individual’s sense of control. Play provides choices and an opportunity to change the narrative.
  • Play can empower children! Play is strength-based and focuses on the child’s perspective.
  • Play helps to develop coping strategies and build inner resolve.

To truly help and support children through stressful life experiences, adults can respect the powerful role of play. Play has numerous benefits for children and instead of dismissing play as, well, “child’s play,” Julia and I believe adults not only can provide a supportive environment for their children, but can learn from how children utilize play and these gains can nurture the entire family – yes, even the busy adult.

Here are some ways adults can create a supportive and playful environment for their children:

  1. Provide open ended and varied materials for play. Objects can take on a variety of symbolic meaning for children that may help to illuminate their experience. For example, a toy car that repeatedly gets in an accident and has to go to get fixed may represent the family’s experience with illness, doctor appointments, and hospitalizations.
  2. Resist the temptation to lead the play. Serious illness in the family can represent a lack of control for everyone. Play is where children do have control. Empower the child to tell his or her story through play in whatever way he or she needs to.
  3. That being said, pay attention to potential misconceptions in play. Perhaps the child repeatedly is punishing his stuffed animals for being bad. Because the stuffed animals were naughty, or something bad happened. Perhaps that child believes that because he yelled at mom, she got cancer. Help to address potential misconceptions by engaging the child at his or her level.
  4. Validate emotions. Having a serious illness in the family can bring up a multitude of confusing and sometimes painful emotions. Often this can lead to more energetic or potentially aggressive play. Or, emotions come out through a safer symbolic object; suddenly the child’s stuffed animal is sad all the time and needs extra care. Validate and label the emotions that you notice being reflected to help the child see that it’s okay and normal to feel a lot of different feelings.
  5. Model your own play! Just as imaginative play can be inherently therapeutic for children, so too can play be therapeutic for adults. Acknowledge when you’re doing something that helps you cope with your experience. By doing so you’re helping to model how important that is for your children to do, too. Julia Wick will talk more about how adults can use play as a tool in self-care in a blog article that follows this one.

What Julia and I hope to highlight is the importance of play as both a tool in taking care of yourself during times of great stress and encouraging playfulness in all your social dynamics. Emphasizing the connection between self and children will help families walk through stressful life experiences – like cancer – feeling not only well-supported, but also with a sense of intimacy and care for each other’s collective and independent journeys. Acknowledging that after a cancer diagnosis the time and energy it takes to play may be harder than ever to access, we strive to explore small (as in doable!) and creative ways to engage families.

However you’re able to incorporate play into your life with your family, always remember the adage, “People might forget exactly what you say, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.” No matter what’s going on in your life stop and take the time to be playful to whatever degree you can. Play creates a legacy and leaves a lasting memory. Most of all, play deepens relationships with our loved ones.

Next up: Read Julia Wick’s blog about how adults can use play as a form of self-care.

Alexandra Waltien, MA, CCLS, is a child life specialist at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and the UVM Cancer Center at the UVM Medical Center.

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