Children think by playing. When analysts engage in child psychoanalysis, we follow children into their play, sometimes playing a role or taking direction from the child, sometimes being an active listener who can help the child learn about unimaginable, raw feelings, always providing emotional understanding. A child can ‘think’ thoughts in play that they or others might find unacceptable or frightening. Consequently, engaging in imaginary play is children’s way to communicate their emotional struggles, and psychoanalysts are specifically trained to listen for these underlying feelings, not concrete ‘facts’. Psychoanalysts explicitly refrain from telling the child how to behave using adult direction.
Here’s an example (identifying characteristics are changed to protect the child’s privacy):
Because of the current pandemic surge, today I must meet with my patient, a 7-year-old girl, virtually instead of in person. She says that when we meet remotely like this she feels “too lonely”. Today, she approaches the camera without showing herself. Instead, she puts two trains in front of the camera for me to see. One train is the duplicate of a blue train car she brought to a session over two years ago announcing that it ‘belonged’ in my office. The other train car is her favorite red train car. As she shows me the trains, I comment, “it looks like there’s a way for you and me to be together today, even though you don’t like meeting virtually. She smiles, and says, “exactly”. Then, encouraged by my understanding her meaning, she adds admonishingly, “you didn’t help me in school today. All my classmates wanted to hurt me with their weapons. They are mean.” She is expressing her feelings of disappointment, fear, sadness, and anger both that I was not available for her in person today, and simultaneously sharing her fears of being rejected at school as she returns post-holidays. Her discomfort with me vanishes as she turns her imagination back to the train cars. She tells me that we need the “green” car to show up. I ask, “the green car shows up?” She continues, “at school I have three friends, Dorothy, Alanis, and Dov. They are my detectives and they will search for who doesn’t like me and wants to hurt me.” When I comment that her 3 friends, like the 3 train cars that are all needed, help her feel safe and thus special with them, she smiles broadly and says. “I knew we could arrive at the station with our trains!” My following and putting into words the feelings behind her comment then allows her to find courage to talk further about her anxiety and anger about being left alone and unsafe, as she felt I did to her by not meeting in person today.
Psychoanalysis with children offers, through the use of play as well as conversation, the possibility to identify, reflect on, and transform internal emotional struggles and traumatic experience into known feelings that can be safely spoken and ultimately managed by the child. From her standpoint, when I asked my patient how it felt to come back to our conversation after the two-week holiday, she said: ‘Oh, it’s just comfy to talk about these things.