• Article
  • February 1, 2021

Play Therapy Helps Patient Process Feelings

Asking for help and challenging stigmas has become the norm for this family.

By Grant Heiman

Play time combined with therapy has helped 9-year-old Arvan Johnson learn how to process his feelings.
Play time combined with therapy has helped 9-year-old Arvan Johnson learn how to process his feelings.

By the end of first grade, Arvan Johnson had changed. Bullying from his peers led to displays of extreme frus­tration and sadness and comments about harming himself.

He was withdrawing from his family. His mother, Leanna Johnson, could not let this go on any longer. They sought help and found it in a school therapist, following a recom¬≠mendation from the school’s social worker.

Kristine Jacobs, a therapist from Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee, works in Arvan’s school to meet kids—and families—where they are. Luckily, just as summer began and older kids moved on to middle school, Jacobs was accepting new patients.

A new level of parenting

When the bullying began, Leanna did what most parents do: She told Arvan to ignore the bullies—that eventually they would stop. When they didn’t stop and Arvan began to internalize negative feelings, Leanna recognized something had to change.

“I wanted to make sure I’m doing everything right for him,” Leanna says. “I grew up in a low-income neighborhood, and there’s the fear that getting people involved might lead to your kids being taken away. I had to get past that.”

Arvan has an adjustment disorder, and with anxiety and mild depression, it is not easy for a 9-year-old child to manage.

Starting in the summer of 2019, Arvan met with Jacobs weekly to learn how to better process his feelings and communicate with those around him. Therapy was a learning process for both Arvan and Leanna, who sometimes joined the sessions.

In combined therapy sessions, Leanna learned how ask the right questions and communicate more directly. “As a parent, to realize how much a little child can feel was just eye opening,” she says. “I felt like I entered a whole new level of parenting.”

During the one-on-one play sessions, Leanna did not ask questions. Instead, she watched, observed and commented on Arvan’s actions while playing with him. The goal is for Arvan to understand and process his own feelings, rather than being influenced by a parent or adult.

By letting Arvan guide play time and incorporating therapy into play, he eventually opened back up to his family. “I just wish I could have more time with Ms. Jacobs,” says Arvan.

Since the summer after his first-grade year, through the COVID-19 pandemic and into his third-grade year, Arvan and Leanna have continued to meet with Jacobs, and Arvan has shown tremendous improvement, according to Leanna.

‘We matter; I am the future’

As calls to right the wrongs of racial injustice spread across the country last summer, Racine, Wisconsin, was no different.

This moment in history prompted Leanna to make a statement with T-shirts for Arvan and his siblings that read, “We matter, I am the future.” Leanna says she wanted to send a message. “I wanted people to understand our Black children have mental health disorders, and they matter,” she says. “I felt like this T-shirt was one way to do that.”

At the same time, Children’s Wisconsin voiced support for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, highlighting a dedication and commitment to Milwaukee and Wisconsin communities.

These efforts toward improvement, in the community and in relationships, have helped Arvan become more confident and happier, Leanna says. “I want the world to know I believe in myself; I know that I’m kind, smart and funny,” says Arvan. “If you don’t believe me, I’ll just have to show you.”

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