Losing a parent or caregiver is difficult for any child, whether the loss is through death, separation, or removal from their home. Working with these children, they are often found to be struggling with grief and adjustment issues that might show up as a significant change in mood or acting out behaviors. Working with children who have been temporarily separated or sometimes permanently removed from their home can sometimes prove particularly difficult when trying to find creative ways to help them work their way through the loss of their parent or caregiver who has been a significant part of their lives for some time, often since birth.
Losing someone is never easy. While I certainly am not wanting to downplay the loss any child feels when a parent or caregiver dies, children who are separated from their homes, whether temporarily or permanently, face a unique challenge in itself. The child knows their parent didn’t die, so why can’t they still be with them? In cases where there has been neglect or abuse, a child may especially have difficulty understanding an array of confusing feelings… “I love my mom, but I didn’t like how she hurt me. But I feel guilty for not being with her but it’s kind of nice that I don’t have to worry so much or be so scared.”
In some cases, children aren’t even particularly sure why they’ve been separated from their parents or caregivers at all. They may not be given much information or they may not even realize that their parent’s neglect or other inappropriate behavior was ever wrong in the first place. From these kids’ perspectives, they have a really hard time understanding why or even how their lives seemed to suddenly be turned upside down. And sometimes, depending on the age of the child, it isn’t appropriate to offer a lot of details; regardless, it still doesn’t make up for the intense hurt and pain they feel from being separated from the only home they ever knew.
Child-centered play therapy, I’ve found, is especially helpful for these children when they are particularly young, but I’ve found that a more directive approach is often needed for middle and older elementary children and pre-teens. Seeking out ideas for techniques to work with these children has continued to result in dead ends. With the exception of a few specific techniques out there on the internet and in books for children who have lost their parent or caregiver not by death but by separation, therapists frequently need to adapt general grief activities for these vulnerable children. While this is certainly not a major problem, I began creating some of my own games, art, and other play activities myself.
To create your own game, simply click below and print the Separation & Loss question strips. After you print the questions, I recommend laminating the page for durability. Then simply cut out your questions, and glue each individual question onto a Jenga block. The blocks that are left over can be used as “free pass” blocks, blocks that allow the player a turn without answering a question or they can be rapport (relationship) building blocks.
I find “free pass” blocks to be helpful over utilizing each and every block for a question, as it seems to make kids more comfortable and feel less overwhelmed. Rapport, or relationship, building blocks are ones in which you can use questions such as those found below, to lighten the mood and discuss something a little more fun and less heavy. The topic of losing or being separated from someone you love can be pretty sensitive, let’s cut the child a break! I personally use some of the rapport (relationship) building questions AND a few “free pass” blocks.”
In regards to the rapport building questions I have included in this post, you obviously wouldn’t use all of the strips for this particular game or you wouldn’t have many blocks left for the separation and loss questions. You can pick and choose which of both sets of questions you would like to use. Or you might also decide to glue two questions onto each Jenga block, with one side having a separation and loss question and the other side including a rapport building question. This is what I choose to do. This way, if a child does feel particularly uncomfortable about answering a separation and loss question, there’s a “back up” question they can choose to answer instead.
Playing games in therapy is one of my most favorite things to do in my profession as a therapist. Children especially enjoy game play, as they also like having a willing opponent in which to play games. In my practice, I use specialty therapeutic games, which are games that are specifically created and designed to address particular mental health issues and challenges (e.g., impulse control, positive thinking, etc.), as well as traditional board and card games that you can purchase at a department store (e.g., UNO, CandyLand, etc.). I call this latter group of games “non-therapeutic” because they were not specifically designed to be used as therapeutic techniques in mental health. The truth is that regardless of whether a game is specifically designed with a therapeutic purpose in mind or not, ANY game can be made to have therapeutic value in my playroom.
I’ve explored various techniques that I use with the games Jenga, Find It, and Sorry! in previous posts. In this post I’m going to show you the therapeutic value of the classic game Perfection with children who have difficulty with focus, attention, and concentration and those who need to develop more effective problem-solving skills and appropriate coping strategies. Perfection is an excellent game to help with all these things!
The object of the game Perfection is to fit all the shapes into their matching holes in the game tray. Pictured in this post is the travel edition of Perfection, which includes 16 shapes, but the original game actually has 25 shapes that you have to fit.
To set the game up, the player spreads the shape pieces next to the game tray so that he or she can easily access the pieces. It helps if all of the handles are facing up, though if you’re looking for the added challenge, leave the shapes as they are. Then the player sets the timer (on the game tray) so that they have 60 seconds of time to complete their task (for the travel edition of this game, the timer will be set to 30 seconds as there are fewer shape pieces).
Next the player simply presses down on the game unit’s pop-up tray and starts the timer. The player then has to quickly fit the shapes into their matching holes. If he or she finishes before the timer runs out, they should quickly turn the timer off; their turn is over and they have successfully completed their task (they win!). If he or she DOES NOT finish before the timer runs out, the tray will pop up and scatter the shapes all over (and nearly scare you both to death in the process!).
Perfection is played no differently in therapy than how it is played regularly. When I first introduce the game to a child, I teach them how to play and let them play two or three times without any intervention from me. During this independent game play, I observe the child’s behaviors: Does the child become easily frustrated? How does the child handle the stress and frustration of trying to beat the timer? Is this method effective for them? How well are they able to concentrate and focus? Are they easily distracted? More likely than not, you will find that most kids get in such a hurry to beat the timer that they actually decrease their efficiency of successfully completing the task due to their inability to remain calm and focus on the task itself.
After the observation phase, I discuss my observations with the child. I then prompt him or her to brainstorm ways to improve, offering suggestions such as slowing down, remaining calm, using deep breathing techniques, and staying focused. I then role play these new techniques with the child while they play the game again (and sometimes, again and again).
Soon you (and the child) will see visible improvement in their efficiency in completing the game’s task. The goal, whether achieved that day or a few sessions down the road, is for the child to be able to utilize effective and appropriate coping and problem solving skills during game play, as well as in real life situations that he or she may encounter. For this reason, it is important to process and even role play these new skills and how they can be utilized in various life situations, such as when taking a test in school. It’s remarkable how easily kids will remember their new skills all because they played the game Perfection!