CHAT WITH DR. ANTOINETTE HARRINGTON ON PLAY THERAPY AND EXPRESSION THROUGH THEATER


By Will Barrios


Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you got started in your practice?

 

A: Sure. Just about three years ago, my husband Joel and I along with our twin identical boys, Noah & Isak- who were soon to turn two at the time- moved to Brunswick, Maine from Peterborough, New Hampshire. Two days before Christmas to be exact and surrounded by seven feet of snow. 

 

“I closed my clinical practice of seven years at The Counseling Center of Nashua. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed to be moving to a new state with no family, friends or professional connections - and no job. My hope was to find a group practice to join.”

The entire year prior to our relocation my husband, who had landed a pretty sweet position, as a high-powered executive commuted to and from Maine while we tried to sell our Peterborough home. Eleven months later we received the selling offer. I closed my clinical practice of seven years at The Counseling Center of Nashua. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed to be moving to a new state with no family, friends or professional connections - and no job. My hope was to find a group practice to join.

“Within two months of opening my doors I had a 4-6 week waiting list. I could not keep up with the referrals. There was an obvious need and I was in the right place.”

I quickly learned, however, that the practice of psychology in Maine was very different than what I was accustomed to. It seemed that there were not many group practices, and individual practitioners tended to hang a professional shingle and do business independently. I had not intended to open a private practice. I didn't know the first thing about opening a private practice. With the help of my professional mentor, the Director of the Counseling Center, within in three months of moving to Maine I found an office space to rent, created a website, hung a professional shingle and opened a practice.

Within two months of opening my doors I had a 4-6 week waiting list. I could not keep up with the referrals. There was an obvious need and I was in the right place.

Q: You have such a passion for theater - where does that come from and how are you using that experience in your practice?

A: I grew up a theatre kid. Back in the early 1980s, my folks developed and operated the Trinity Arts Center (TAC) a non-profit community arts center in the heart of the inner city in Providence, Rhode Island. Not to be confused with the Trinity Repertory Theatre downtown Providence, TAC was located in the Trinity United Methodist Church two blocks up from Central and Classical High School and next door to one of the toughest housing projects. The primary mission of TAC was "to enable people and especially children and youth from it's neighborhood to develop and express their individual spirit, to preserve their cultural heritage and to increase their faith in Almighty God." 

The theatre was an intimate 500 seat auditorium that my parents literally renovated from the ground up expanding the stage, outfitting the lighting, sound booths and dressing rooms. For twelve years, we held open auditions for the community and performed 4 musical productions and 1 drama a year. TAC also offered weekly dance (ballet, jazz and tap) and drama classes and had a traveling Drama Troupe that performed for the local prison and drug treatment centers.

“I performed in nearly every show! Theatre was my home."

My mother, Pearl Mathisen an actress and dancer was the director of most of the productions and my father, Tor Mathisen a professional ballet dancer and native of Oslo Norway was the choreographer and artistic director. I performed in nearly every show! Theatre was my home. For the longest time I imagined performing on the Broadway stage and even applied to Emerson in Boston to be a musical theatre major. The closest I got was auditioning for the Broadway productions of Cats and Sunset Boulevard. 

 

“Today I use a lot of role playing and what’s often referred to as 'psychodrama' or 'drama therapy' with kids and adults alike to help them work through various challenges and practice learned communication and emotional regulation skills."

However there was another call on my Christian heart - to help children of all walks of life who were victimized and disadvantaged in some way. So I went to graduate school to become a child psychologist. During my pre-doctoral internship and trauma training at Dartmouth I was working with child victims at a community mental health center in the Lakes Region of Laconia New Hampshire. I needed to figure out a dissertation topic and decided to develop a theatre arts program for at risk youth. The program was highly successful and ran for two years with a short production at the end of each year. Although I collected some rich data my “N” was too small to be used for a dissertation - I would’ve had to run the program a few more years and at that point I just wanted to graduate. I often think of the boxes of data I have still sitting in my basement and that I should go through it and submit a paper to a journal or something. 

Today I use a lot of role playing and what’s often referred to as "psychodrama" or "drama therapy" with kids and adults alike to help them work through various challenges and practice learned communication and emotional regulation skills. I often “ set the scene” by creating a hypothetical situation similar to the ones that give them trouble and we practice responding in a new way. 

Q: How do you think theater helps kids in play therapy?

“Theatre and play therapy build on the imagination and enhances emotional intelligence. It offers a safe place for children to express emotions they wouldn't otherwise allow themselves to feel or express in their day to day life.”

A: Theatre and play therapy build on the imagination and enhances emotional intelligence. It offers a safe place for children to express emotions they wouldn't otherwise allow themselves to feel or express in their day to day life. They can try it on and work with it until they acquire a sense of mastery over the uncomfortable experience. This can then be generalized into their everyday lives.

In this way theatre has the capacity to help build self-confidence, esteem, and a sense of efficacy. Not to mention illuminating a gift or talent for the arts. It further offers an opportunity for mirroring. In order to facilitate healthy attachment, adults and caregivers act as mirrors for children. The way important people in the child's life respond to them is often internalized and becomes that child’s sense of self and is where identity is born. Theatre and play therapy allow children to be anyone and anything they dream of being. The therapist can validate and mirror that back to the child. I have the best job in the world!

“Theatre and play therapy allow children to be anyone and anything they dream of being. The therapist can validate and mirror that back to the child. I have the best job in the world!

Q: Can you talk a little bit more about play therapy and how it benefits a child’s development?

A: Absolutely. Play is the window into a child's developing mind. Young children, those 10 and under, sometimes even older, often do not have the language to put to their emotional experiences. Through play they are given an outlet to express, work through, and develop critical executive functioning (planning, reasoning and organizing) and problem solving skills. Through play they can gain a sense of control and mastery over their internal conflicts that they do not often get the chance to experience in their every day life where adults often control their world. Instead they may exhibit acting out behavior (anger and aggression) in the home or classroom that is misinterpreted as defiant behavior. When in fact the child is frightened and hurting and trying desperately to get an adult's attention to help. 

In my work with child victims of trauma, play is instrumental in the healing process. Often these children don't even know how to play and it involves teaching the parents how to get down on the floor and play with their children. The reparative process can reinstate a sense of safety in the non-abusive parent.

“Be curious so they will open up and share more. Children and adults alike want to be seen and heard. Let your child tell you his or her daily story."

Q: Do you have any tips or suggestions for parents who want their children to gain healthy benefits from playtime?

A: Yes, play with them and follow the child's lead! Children grow in relationship to others not in solidarity. Make eye contact and reflect and validate on what they are doing. Be curious so they will open up and share more. Children and adults alike want to be seen and heard. Let your child tell you his or her daily story. Too often I see parents who either don't know how to get down on the child's level to play or they direct it too much. Children are resilient and internally all knowing. If you sit back, stay quiet and be present you may just discover new and wonderful things about your child. 

Dr. Antoinette Harrington is a Licensed Psychologist in Brunswick, Maine. Her private practice focuses on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Child Parent Psychotherapy, and Play Therapy; she also specializes in assessing and treating child trauma and PTSD.

You can find out more about Dr. Harrington at 
www.drantoinetteharrington.com.

For more information on play therapy please visit the Association for Play Therapy at 
www.a4pt.org, and Play Therapy International at www.playtherapy.org.

For new ways to play pre-order Tatro: A Magnetic World of Play HERE.


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