Playtime as Therapy for Mood Disorders
Ask any parent and they would say that they want their child to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. Childhood- in particular, infancy and toddlerhood- is supposed to be that one time in a person’s life when happiness and play rule and responsibilities are non-existent.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always.
Like their adult counterparts, children are also vulnerable to mood disorders such as anxiety and even depression. In fact, one could say that childhood anxiety is just a normal part of growing up. Between the ages of four months to eighteen months, infants commonly experience something known as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety refers to the anxiety a child feels when they a separated from their caregiver, and it can cause behaviors such as agitation, crying, and distress. (3)(4)
This type of anxiety is welcomed, or at the very least, it’s not feared. Its appearance is directly correlated to a child’s awareness of something called object permanence, which marks an important milestone in their development. (4) Thankfully, separation anxiety usually eases up by the time a child is two or three years old when children understand that yes, mom or dad does come back! (4)
While separation anxiety is considered a developmental milestone of sorts for young infants and toddlers, in general, anxieties can actually manifest at any age and prove to be problematic. In fact, for children, behavior issues are considered a major red flag when it comes to possible mood disorders. (2)
What can cause anxiety and depression to rear their ugly head in young children?
For children, mood disorders are often triggered by some major event, or change, in their lives. For example, the birth of a new sibling, a move, or attending daycare or school for the first time are all major life changes that can bring about overwhelming feelings that strain a child’s ability to cope effectively. (2) Physical health, home/school environment, or genetic vulnerability can also be factors. (2)
Believe it or not, children’s mental health disorders affect them more than other childhood disorders. (4) Unfortunately, doctors have noticed that in recent years there has been a steady rise in the number of children that are diagnosed with anxiety, behavior, and depressive disorders. (1) The recent Covid-19 pandemic brought an abundance of very challenging changes for children, including virtual learning, separation from friends and family, and perhaps even the loss of a loved one. Not surprisingly, with this pandemic, there has been an increase in mood disorders among children. (5)
What are the signs of anxiety and depression in children? How can we tell if they are suffering?
As our children’s caregivers, we know our children best, and truly, we serve as their best line of defense when they may be experiencing issues with anxiety or depression. It’s more than likely that you will suspect if your child is exhibiting behavior that is a bit “off”. Some behaviors to keep an eye out for include behavior issues (eg “acting out”), changes in sleep patterns, more irritability or crankiness, or withdrawal from engaging with others. (5)
The good news is that, yes, there are ways to help our children when they are feeling down and anxious! We’re learning just how much parenting behaviors affect the mental well-being of their children.
What are some things that you, as a parent, can do if your child is experiencing emotional or behavioral issues?
First, talk to your child. Communication involves listening as well as speaking. Can your child explain how they’re feeling? From their point of view, what is the matter? Whether your child is able to verbalize their feelings or not, they will appreciate that you are making the effort to make sure that they’re okay. You want your child to trust that they have your emotional support and that it will be okay for them to be able to express their feelings to you no matter what.
Second, speak to your child’s healthcare provider. Your child’s behavioral and emotional symptoms may actually be a byproduct of health problems that they’re experiencing. (7) This is why it is standard procedure for incoming patients to have a healthcare evaluation before therapies are even considered. (7) For example, an issue as straightforward and fixable such as poor vision can actually provoke esteem issues and behavior problems in children. (7) A very young child who is suffering from a physical ailment might not be able to vocalize the trouble that they’re experiencing and could act out as a result.
Third, play with your child. When it comes to dealing with emotional disorders, toddlers and preschoolers, in particular, can benefit greatly from a therapy called “Special Playtime”. Who would believe that something as simple as play can have a therapeutic effect on children? Well, it does. The purpose of special playtime is for parents to build strong, nurturing relationships with their children by engaging them in the world that they feel most comfortable with- the world of play. (6)
Some Dos and Don’ts for Special Playtime:
Do keep playtime positive.
Show your child that you enjoy spending time with them and that being with them is fun (6). Praise them when they do something that you like. This will make the child feel good, and it will also make it more likely that they will repeat these good behaviors. (6)
Don’t question or criticize your child during playtime. We don’t want them to feel self-conscious or feel like they’re doing something wrong. (6) This would only increase their anxious feelings.
Do use “good” toys.
The CDC recommends that we pay close attention to the toys that we use for special playtime. Before you start playtime, ask yourself: Are the toys age-appropriate? Do they allow the child to be creative and use their imagination? It’s recommended that during special playtime you avoid using a toy that moves or plays by itself. (6) Toys like puzzles, blocks, tools, chalk, crayons, and paper are more appropriate because they allow children to practice using their imaginations to think and express themselves creatively. (6)
Do try to devote at least 5-10 minutes to playtime daily.
Each minute of quality playtime with your child is equivalent to a pound of cure when it comes to helping to ease their anxieties. Be consistent.
Here at ExploraToy we make toys perfectly suited for this parent-child playtime. Practice the alphabet and numbers with your child, or teach them about farm animals with our wooden peg toys. Dig in the dirt a little and enjoy sensory play with our garden tools. You’re only limited by your imagination!
- “Data and Statistics on Children's Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Mar. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html#:~:text=Depression%20and%20anxiety%20have%20increased,8.4%25%20in%202011%E2%80%932012.&text=%E2%80%9CEver%20having%20been%20diagnosed%20with%20anxiety%E2%80%9D%20increased%20from%205.5%25,6.4%25%20in%202011%E2%80%932012.
- “Depression in Children: Symptoms and Common Types of Child Depression.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-children.
- Geddes, Jennifer Kelly. “Separation Anxiety in Babies.” What to Expect, 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/week-10/separation-anxiety.aspx.
- Leonard, Jayne. “Separation Anxiety in Babies: Causes, Signs, and How to Help.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 7 June 2021, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/separation-anxiety-in-babies.
- “Signs Your Teen Is Struggling with Anxiety and Depression during Quarantine.” Connecticut Children's, 9 July 2021, https://www.connecticutchildrens.org/mental-health/teen-depression-and-anxiety-what-parents-should-look-for-ask-and-do/.
- “Special Playtime.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Nov. 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/communication/specialplaytime.html.
- “Therapy to Improve Children's Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/parent-behavior-therapy.html.