What if I told you that Batman is my security guard, my protector, my hero? My superhero? Would you think I was crazy? Or perhaps that maybe I was joking? I’m speaking only truth. He helps me learn new ways of looking at things. He helps me solve the problems I face. And he shields me from the villains that might be lurking around in the shadows.
Villains? Yes. Villains. You know, the ones outside of my cozy little therapy room? The villains. The bully who picks on me. The man who lives down the street and scares me and gives me goosebumps every time I pass by on my bike in front of his house. My mom, who hits me until she blacks out. Those villains. The villains we all encounter in some way at different points in our lives in the real world. The ones who frighten us. The ones who seem a lot more powerful than us. The villains.
But don’t worry about me because I’ve got Batman to protect me. And Superman, the Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman too. They get me through it all. To you, they might look like just toys, but to me, they’re like my best friends, and best of all, they teach me how I can be a superhero too…
I don’t think that there’s any question that children love to play. Spend fifteen minutes with a child, and you will likely catch a glimpse into an entirely different world, one that is magical and, truthfully, a lot more fun. What could a child possibly love more than play?! Well, there actually is something…. They really love it when a grown-up joins in and plays with them!
It turns out that play has even more benefits than just being fun. It actually has a purpose!
“In their play, children repeat everything that has made a great impression on them in real life, and that in doing so, they abstract the strength of the impression and make themselves a master of the situation.” -Sigmund Freud.
Play, especially fantasy play, is a safe way for children to express their emotions, to figure out the confusing things that they’re experiencing, and sometimes to even distance themselves from what are otherwise very painful situations. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who contributed a great deal in the field of developmental psychology, regarded fantasy play as a window into a child’s under’s understanding of their current reality, of which they’re able to “experiment with competencies and understandings beyond the constraints of their intellect and experience.”
Maybe this will help: As grown-ups, we often use metaphors to help us understand things (concepts) more completely and to help us gain insight into the many situations we encounter in our day to day lives. A metaphor is simply a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, one in which a word or phrase is applied to an object (or action) to which it isn’t literally applicable. “All the world’s a stage” is likely a metaphor that you have heard.
What metaphors do for us, fantasy does for a child. Most of us have probably watched a young child as she transforms her building blocks into a fast and exciting train. Or perhaps you’ve seen the family cat magically imagined to become a terrifying tiger in the jungle! Metaphors help us, as humans, generate various possible solutions to the problems we face. They help to provide those “light bulb” moments of insight. This is what play does for children!
Enter Batman. Superman and the Incredible Hulk too. Invite all the superheroes. And don’t forget the villains!
Yep. They’re all invited to my play therapy room. They come so they can help teach children how to their own superhero and how to identify the superheroes in their own lives. (Not all heroes wear capes, after all.) They teach kids how to use their superpowers to defeat the villains they may encounter. They help kids work through their own adversity, and they do it all in a safe, non-threatening, and playful way.
You see, within each of us (children included) lies a number of superpowers that we often don’t know are even there. One such superpower is strength. Inner strength. Superheroes are able to help teach children that. Superheroes have the power to heal the hearts that have been broken and the spirits that have shattered. Superheroes help the child being bullied in the school hallways. They help teach children how to solve problems and look for solutions. They teach courage to the child who has to go to court to testify against his abuser. They give children the opportunity to learn that they too can fight any villain they encounter throughout life – that good really can overcome evil.
There’s something about superheroes that many kids can relate to, whether they’re in therapy or not. Here are some things about superheroes that I myself never realized until I started exploring using superhero therapy:
Can you see why some children feel such great connection with superheroes? Simply put, they can relate to these super figures. The children I see in therapy are frequently those who, just like their superhero friends, have also faced significant adversities and challenges in their young lives. Some have faced traumatic events; some have trouble coping with anxiety or have been beaten down with depression. There are kids who have been outcasted by their peers at school and others who have suffered at the hands (or hurtful, hateful words) of a bully. And there are children who feel invisible to the world around them and may even be behaving in ways in attempt to find someone who cares enough to pay attention.
Regardless of the challenge, regardless of the adversities these children have endured, it can be guaranteed that there’s a superhero out there who has faced something similar.
When superheroes and children “meet,” kids are suddenly given an ally in the world; they find a friend. They realize that they’re not alone. There’s finally someone to validate how they feel. Children become empowered by the new knowledge that they too can overcome, that even they have superpowers. And most importantly, they learn that they can be a superhero too. And isn’t that something we hope all children have the opportunity to realize?