Felix is five, he is now adopted. He has experienced early childhood trauma, he had a mother who was unable to attach to him in a secure and loving way, as both she and Felix had lived with perpetual domestic violence.
The impact of such an experience on the developing infant’s body and brain is profound. We know that when the primary care giver is unable to provide a warm safe and loving bond with the infant then these children grow up with real difficulties in trusting others to help make their world safe. They are unable to regulate what they feel inside, often feeling anxious and on the alert for any possible real or imagined signs of danger. Their brains are wired to decode anything which might trigger a threat. Sometimes these triggers are external, as in noises, movements, facial expressions, sometimes they are internal, a raise in body heat, feeling anxious or excited. Without the experience of a safe and loving other the child has little capacity to make sense of these stimuli and to soothe himself. Without the feeling of being understood, of knowing that trauma induced terror can be managed with the help of a regulating other these children often remain, anxious or aggressive or controlling, their brains and body’s operate from a sense of fear rather than a sense of hope… the hope that there is someone else who can help.
Such was the case with Felix, he had a traumatised brain and really needed to know that his new mum and dad were resourced and robust and could help him figure things out and feel safe in the world.
Felix and his new mum came for dramatherapy. Felix liked to play and he was good at it. His mum was good at watching and joining in when Felix needed her to. Felix loved to play with action figures; he told me that their job was to save the world from the bad man figure. He told me that the bad man was scary, he wanted to attack people all the time, and that he wanted all the action figures to feel as angry as him.
Felix built a castle and filled it with toys, play food and dolls house beds. He told me that this is where the action figures would learn not to be angry. ‘How long would that take?’ I wondered, his answer ‘two weeks!’ They would be helped by a superhero who had already worked out not to be angry.
It was a really hard job for the action figures to learn to have other feelings, they learnt how to be sad when the ‘bad man’ attacked their safe castle, they learnt to trust the superhero figure to protect them when the bad man attacked, eventually they learnt that having friends made them feel happy. They learnt to choose which friends might be the best ones to help.
One session Felix asked me to pick up the bad man figure and chase the two action figures that he would hold around the therapy room. We played chase for about thirty seconds. At first Felix looked delighted with the game but then quickly realised that this wasn’t so good, throwing his action figures to the floor he ran into his mum’s lap.
- She held him tight and told the bad man to ‘clear off, there was no way’ he ‘was having her son’. Felix snuggled into his mums lap and gazed at her. She gazed back lovingly. ‘Can we go home now?’ Felix said.
We cleared up the space together, and I commented on how well at playing Felix was and how good his mum was at sorting out bad men in the play. Felix grinned at me ‘See you next week Sarah’ he said as he left, hand in hand with his mum.
Felix had just had a reparative experience of accessing other to help; he had found other and had trusted that she could help. That trust had been beautifully responded to by his new mum.
Felix continues to enjoy his dramatherapy sessions.