What are your nightmares about?

A 9-year-old boy comes to my reception room with a shy smile. He stumbles, wondering where to put his boots and hangs his jacket. I would say he looks uncomfortable. His parents told him that “this lady” would talk to him seriously about his nightmares: he must listen carefully and do everything as she, the psychotherapist, would say. In a word, there seems to be plenty of reasons for him to tremble.


As we greet each other, he is looking around. I invite him to see if anything catches his eye in the room. Among other things - paints, various toys, musical instruments, plasticine, and various other craft supplies, - he chooses the Lego.


As we talk about his likes and dislikes, his hands gesture vividly, one gesture after another. At some point, I notice that a little supercar in his hands is mercilessly smashing into another. This is the moment - the game has begun! I join him; we add sounds to the game, a little scenery, heroes - little men and monsters, distribute roles. He teaches me how the characters (from a video game with an unpronounceable name) should speak and walk. We play for the entire hour.


Right before the end of the session, the boy tells me he is scared: his family is in danger of being driven out of the house. He also tells me that he wants to spend more time with his dad because his dad is strong, but his dad is very busy at work.


In the sessions that follow, we enact the theme of power which came up during the first session— we sculpt, draw, make a superhero costume, and work out sword fighting tactics. In parallel, we converse with the boy’s parents about their fears and family communication style, messages, spoken and unspoken; about ways, they cope with their challenging life situation. We discuss what quality time together looks like in their family, what is and isn't under their control and how they can support their son through this time. After a couple of months, the mother called me again, but for another reason. Her son was no longer coming over to the parents' room at night...


What is this story about? For me, it is about how the unspoken is manifested, about the expression of feelings in indirect ways and, finally, about finding relief. It is about undefined anxiety that is given a certain shape and concrete reason through play, body movement and use of imagination. The role of an Art therapist and a psychotherapist is to support and guide the creative process, helping the child (or adult) to see what is bothering them, to understand their feelings better, and to comprehend confusing thoughts. And ultimately, the goal is to make the shift happen – first, in the internal, and then, gradually, in the external reality.


Creative play is a natural means of expression for a child, and a resource, source of strength, and powerful transformative energy for adults. Through play, as with any kind of creativity, we transform reality. With the help of imagination, we are able to find a way out of the ordinary, look at what worries in a new way, and find a solution where the solution appears impossible to find.


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ayana spivak arts based psychotherapy, 2019