Between the ages of 12 and 25 the human brain experiences an unusual period of growth and plasticity. This helps explain the sometimes goofy or risk seeking behavior of teens and young adults. Recent brain science helps us understand the pros and cons of this behavior as pointed out in this NY Times article, The Case for Delayed Adolescence.

This age-dependent maleability of the brain makes this a time of both vulnerability and opportunity.   While young people are more affected by adverse experiences they also have a greater ability to reprocess them and achieve greater integration before entering the more hard-wired adult state.


dadGreat article on the role of Dad in the family. Click to read the article. Kids can learn important life skills from  play time with Dad such as boundary setting, risk-taking and perseverance.  Families often invent their own games with rules.  An important one is that there be a “stop” code or sign, because even though a child is laughing, they may have reached their limit.  Dads can use this to reinforce teaching that “no” means “no.”

So while Psychologists continue to puzzle out how to measure the positive effect of a playful dad, kids will benefit by enjoying the fun interactions that often occur spontaneously.

Researchers ask how long a family dinner needs to be in order to have a positive impact as families become more pressed for time. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal suggested that it is worth the effort for families to sit down to eat together, even briefly. The positive effects are significant as “Each weekly family dinner correlates with a 15% reduction in the odds of substance abuse, and a reduction in depressive symptoms and delinquency, according to a 2012 review of data from nearly 18,000 adolescents, which was published in Journal of Marriage and Family.” There is no magic number, but some family meals are better than none. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323981304579079720375700820.html

Tuppence wearing her cone

Tuppence wearing her cone

Therapy dog, Tuppence, provided a metaphor for healing from emotional trauma.

Sometimes parents have to do things kids don’t like in order to help them heal. My therapy dog, Tuppence, recently required stiches in her eyelid. As a consequence she has been required by me, her ”mom”, to wear a plastic cone around her neck. Tuppence would never have chosen to wear the cone of her own free will, but it has been the most effective, kind way to prevent her from tearing the stiches out. When she was enjoying freedom from the cone one day she did tear one of the stiches. While she has not enjoyed wearing the cone, Tuppence has tolerated it well, and her eye is now healing nicely.

It occurred to me that Tuppence’ cone is a good metaphor for some of the things parents do, which kids don’t like, such as wearing seat belts and doing chores. It’s the parents’ job to enforce the rules, teach, and protect their children. Everyone understands that a broken arm requires a cast even though the child who wears it would rather be able to go swimming. Sometimes emotional wounds also require adjustments which are uncomfortable, or inconvenient.
• Tutoring is sometimes necessary to help a child overcome gaps in learning brought about by early trauma.
• Physical therapy may help a child overcome sensory integration problems.
• Temporary separation from siblings may help a child who has relational difficulties at home.
• Removal of electronic devices during the week may be necessary for a child who is unable otherwise to focus on their homework.
• Going to therapy in order to process traumatic memories may not be as much fun as playing on the playground. However, integrating those memories could provide relief and allow healing to occur.

As Tuppence has helped demonstrate this week, sometimes short term discomfort is worth it in order to achieve healing.
Website: http://www.familycccp.org

Accurate  feed back on a child’s performance, and encouragement of their efforts rather than over praising supports the development of resiliency. Check out the article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Finding the Just-Right Level of Self-Esteem for a Child”: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323884304578328254243843768.html.  The bottom line seems to be to praise and encourage your child’s effort, and encourage character strengths as the basis of self-worth.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323696404578297942503592524.html  This intriguing article in the Wall Street Journal highlights some new research on how children develop empathy.  Babies are excellent observers, learning more than previously thought from their parents and caregivers.  Who knew that something as simple as asking toddlers to identify feelings in their picture books would make them better at doing chores later in childhood?

What is Health?

Some musings on how play promotes health in individuals and families

Health may be one of those things like art that we recognize when we see it.  Imagine a child, unselfconsciously and joyfully interacting with peers on a playground, a youth with bright eyes and glowing complexion, or a couple walking hand in hand.  In contrast, when our health is suddenly compromised in some big or small way, we know what we’re missing.  The loss of a loved one or a job leaves a hole in our sense of self.

What comprises emotional or mental health, and how can we either maintain or move towards it?  We have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) to help us identify deficits or ill-health, but what are appropriate goals for healing?  Certainly health is more than the absence of mal-adaptive symptoms.  The currently popular term “well-being” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the state of being happy and healthy.  The measurement of this is very subjective, but in the world of mental health self-report, or the subjective, felt sense is the recognized standard.

Nancy McWilliams, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University explored this topic at a recent conference.  Her thesis was that having a specific construct of what constitutes mental wellness fits within the framework of a more holistic approach to medicine.

There is greater recognition today of the interrelatedness of the mind and body.  Scientists have shown that what you think about yourself has an impact on your physical health.  For instance, depression has been found to have the same level of negative impact on physical health as smoking, and cancer patients are taught meditation and guided imaging to use in conjunction with chemotherapy because studies have shown that it improves outcomes.

Freud identified the hallmarks of good mental health as the ability to love, work, and play.  Dr Williams expanded on this with: movement toward a secure attachment, sense of autonomy, self and object constancy, ego strength, realistic self-esteem, abiding values, affect tolerance and regulation, insight, theory of mind, sense of vitality, and acceptance.  She allowed that the extended list may just be an elaboration of the three goals identified by Freud, but found it useful to consider the various aspects, and how they add to a sense of well-being, or health.

I propose that play can foster health in many of these areas.  While play may be the language of children as Erikson noted, it is valuable at all stages of life.  Or, as the old maxim states: we don’t stop playing because we grow old, but we grow old because we stop playing.  Clinicians who work with children use many forms of play in therapy, but as parents and professionals do we make room for play in our own lives, to foster our own well-being?

Now the reader may wonder if I hadn’t noticed how youth-centric the culture is, and shouldn’t we be encouraging people to grow up rather than regress?  Before you decide that I’m being frivolous consider the cautions presented in a pamphlet by Dr. Bruce Perry on the risk of secondary trauma for those who work with troubled children and adults, this extends to other family members.  Too often by the time parents seek help for their child they are overwhelmed and on the point of burn-out.  According to Perry, in order “to avoid feeling overwhelmed by feelings of frustration and sadness it is important to engage in activities [individuals] consider fun or playful.”

Play can foster wellness on several levels. Whether it’s sitting on the floor with a favorite child, picking flowers in your garden, or playing a round of golf with a friend, play gives our over-worked left brains a break, and releases the feel good chemicals in the brain: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.  We need these chemicals to be in balance in order to feel well.  Play also often gets us moving which is good for the body, and releases endorphins

Those who know me know that I enjoy training my dogs for the sport of agility.  I’ve recently been wondering why this activity is so important to me.  A simple, playful interaction gave me useful insight.  Following presenter Teri Krull’s instruction in a recent Arizona Association of Play Therapy training to play with multi-colored pipe cleaners I created an abstract construction representing myself and a dog.  After just a few minutes I had fresh understanding that playing with my dogs not only gives me joy, but fosters a sense of peace within myself.  In other words, it relieves stress, by allowing me to be in the moment for a time, and set other concerns aside.

Many families, especially here in Arizona, find swimming a fun activity that brings them closer together.  Swimming has the added benefit that it provides opportunities for appropriate skin to skin contact that so many older children need, but don’t get enough of.  The image that comes to mind is my husband battling our teenage son in the water for control of the basketball.  Parents may also find that playing with their kids allows them opportunities to stay in the loop of what is going on socially during those challenging tween and teen years.  More than one dad has found that running with his son or daughter to be an effective way to be available for important conversations.  This way for dads to connect was recently depicted in the family movie “Courageous.”

Contemporary society offers many forms of permission for adults to play: sports, kids, pets, crafts, gardening, computer & cell phone games.  While all play has benefit, it may be that play involving physical movement is more efficacious than stationary activities.  While watching sports activates some of the same neurons that playing the sport does, moving is more health- promoting.  Apparently, sitting is not healthy for humans.  So, to the extent you are able, include active forms of play in your repertoire.

As the Kelly Clarkson song, “Stronger”, proclaims: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  If play helps us find renewed hope, increased relational skills, greater self-awareness, and renewed enthusiasm for our lives, we and those we love will be stronger.  So in order to maintain our own health along the way, I recommend a regular dose of play in whatever form brings you joy.




Anisman-Reiner, Victoria.  “Emotions and Physical Health: Can what you think and feel affect your health and the way you live?”  2006, http://www.suite101.com/content/emotions-and-physical-health-a2984?template=article

McWilliams, Nancy. “What are we helping patients toward: Reflections on overall psychological health”?  2012, The Christian Association for Psychological Studies Conference

Perry, Bruce D. “The Cost of Caring: Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Impact of Working with High-Risk Children and Families”.  2003, The Child Trauma Academy

Reynolds, Gretchen.  “The Evolution of the Runners’ High”.  http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/the-evolution-of-the-runners-high/