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Stephanie chats with Jillian Kelly-Wavering, MSSW, LCSW, RPT about play based therapy for kids. She explains what attachment-oriented play therapy is and how it can help create healthy routines, rituals, and even be used for early childhood trauma. Jillian also shares how parents can help their kids with homework without it causing a ton of stress, tension, and frustration. You’ll learn how important play, exploration, and connection is key for early childhood development.
We’d like to say a special thank you to today’s Podcast Partner: Four Sigmatic, a natural superfood company that specializes in mushroom-based drinks that benefit immunity, energy, and longevity. Get 15% off your order on their website with the code WHOLEMAMAS.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 0:04
Being connected to the child in their natural way of communicating, it really naturally unfolds and ultimately supports the child as they communicate these really difficult life experiences.
Stephanie Greunke 0:19
Welcome back to the Whole Mamas Podcast. We’re here to give you tools, resources and evidence-based information so you can make the best decisions for yourself and your family. Whether you’re trying to conceive, or navigating life with a toddler or a teenager, we’ve got you covered. I am Stephanie Greunke, registered dietitian and Program Director for Whole30’s Whole Mamas Club. I’m also the co-creator of Whole30’s pregnancy program and our upcoming postpartum program. And my co-host is Dr. Elana Roumell, pediatric naturopathic doctor and creator of Med School for Moms – an online resource where she teaches moms how to safely be a doctor mom.
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Today I’m excited to bring Jillian Kelly-Wavering, a licensed clinical social worker and registered play therapist on our show. There is no doubt that parenting can be stressful as you’re trying to navigate all of the changes tantrums and what your new life looks like, you’re thrown books, articles and advice from well-intended individuals. They all seem to contradict each other about the best ways to do this parenting thing. This is why I am so excited to have our guests on today’s show. Jillian has a beautiful calm energy about her. And it’s clear that she really gets it. In her practice, she uses something called play therapy, which helps her observe and track how kids play to process their life experiences. She helps parents really understand what their little ones are going through from a child development perspective. And I love that she’s able to support kids that are navigating really tough life experiences in trauma through something called play therapy, when they’re not able to use words to express what they’re feeling. If you have a little one starting school this year or heading back to school, you don’t want to miss her advice on how to make homework time less stressful and more playful. And even if your little ones aren’t bringing homework home yet, I think her suggestions can work great for helping little ones stay focused while they’re doing artwork or learning a new skill.
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Okay, without further delay, let’s welcome Jillian to the show. Thank you so much for coming on our show Jillian. Now at the time that we’re recording this podcast, you’re in your third trimester. So congrats on your pregnancy. And I’d love to hear how you’re doing. How’s this pregnancy going for you?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 5:15
Thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be on this podcast, especially considering that I began listening to your podcast shortly after finding out about my pregnancy in October and it’s just so neat to be able to contribute to the podcast now, as I complete my my pregnancy. This is really, really neat. And, I am feeling great. I’m about 38 weeks, and have officially taken maternity leave. So I’m really just enjoying this time of preparing and getting ready for my little one to come and creating a real cozy nest and a really healthy postpartum period for us.
Stephanie Greunke 5:55
I love that you’re taking that early maternity leave. I know, it’s hard for us in states, we don’t have a long maternity leave at all. And so it can be tricky to try to take that time, you know, and take it away from after the baby comes to really focus on what’s happening now. So I’m so glad that you have the privilege to do that. And part of why you’re able to do that is because you own a business called Asheville Play Therapy in Asheville, North Carolina, is that correct?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 6:21
Yes. Yes, I do.
Stephanie Greunke 6:22
Yeah. So you’re able to really take that time off. And I think Dr. Elana is also doing that. So she can kind of share what her early maternity leave plans are. But, that is fantastic. It’s just a way to slowly and comfortably ease into this new beautiful transition.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 6:38
Stephanie Greunke 6:40
So why we wanted to bring you on the show was because you are so passionate about helping parents create daily playful rituals and routines that are evidenced-based and they work with a child’s neurobiology. So the therapy that you offer is especially for kids who have experienced trauma and also for kids who are on a continuing life stressors. I mean, there’s just a lot of stress. And we think about it for adults, but our kids are also going through a lot, whether that’s, you know, school, and then going to after school activities and bullying and all the things that they have to worry about and the stress from artificial lights. So I’m really looking forward to learning more from you about all of this. And first, you’re a listener. So you know that we love to start our show with this question. And that is howdid you nourish yourself today?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 7:32
This is one of my favorite parts whenever I listen to your podcast, because I learned so much from you and Elana and from all of the people who you interview just really great little golden nuggets about how to practice self care. So I’ve been thinking about this. And actually today, how I nourished myself was in buying myself flowers. So as you know, I’m 38 weeks pregnant, and today was my big food shop day so that I could meal prep and free some meals for the postpartum period. And so I had my list that was very, you know, very thorough, and I knew that I had a short window of time before I’d have to find a bathroom. And so I was very diligent going through all the aisles. And as I stood in line, I saw just a beautiful bouquet of flowers. And I spontaneously popped out of line and bought them for myself. And they’re just lovely, and a great symbol of self care and nourishment.
Stephanie Greunke 8:31
Oh, I love that you did for yourself. Flowers really brighten up a room, don’t they?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 8:35
They sure do.
Stephanie Greunke 8:36
Yeah. And how often do you do that? Is this like you said it was a random thing for you? Do you do it monthly? Is it just kind of as you see a pretty bouquet, or how often does that happen for you?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 8:47
Yeah, you know, when I go food shopping, especially in this third trimester, because I know I have such a short window of time before I have to find a bathroom, I tend to really be so focused. And so I don’t always pay attention to the lovely bouquets or to some of the items that really are not necessarily, you know, purposeful or on the list. But today, I just caught out of the corner of my eye, just a beautiful bouquet of flowers and just went with it. And so that felt really good to sort of have that spontaneous moment of self care that wasn’t necessarily on my list, or purposeful, or goal oriented. It was just solely to make myself really feel lovely, right in that moment.
Stephanie Greunke 9:33
Something just for you, that’s beautiful. Now what are you meal prepping? I need to know what you’re doing for your freezer meal.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 9:39
Yes, all kinds of things. So I have lots of really nourishing soups. My younger sister, or one of my sisters I have I have three wonderful sisters, is an acupuncturist. And she specializes in women’s fertility. And so she’s given me lots of really fantastic recipes for nourishing my body postpartum. So lots of jujubee dates and bone broth, and quinoa and just really hearty and nourishing foods.
Stephanie Greunke 10:09
Wow, that sounds delicious. Yeah, and those are always great. Those are great frozen soups and stews are the best. And those are things I also like to bring to new moms. I’m actually bringing a new mom a meal tonight. So I love that, love that you’re nourishing yourself. And you’re so prepared for this baby to come.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 10:25
Stephanie Greunke 10:27
So what I did today, actually, this is this is kind of random. But we my husband, I just got back from a trip to Mexico, we were there to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary. And this was the first time that we were away from the kids overnights for an extended vacation in five years. So we decided that after the trip happened, we were so relaxed, so connected, we loved it, we decided we needed to do it yearly, we have to plan for that. And so this morning, my husband and I took a look at our budget we estimated what we’d want to spend on travel for the following year, and we’ve made a special travel savings plan so that we invest X amount of money each month, and that will help us afford the trip next year. And we’re actually going to book it soon, so that we can make sure that we have childcare lined up and just having it on the calendar just gets you so excited, like you know that it’s coming even if it’s a year away. So I’m really excited about that.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 11:20
Yes. And that’s that’s a great nugget for me to take into my new mom adventure. This is our first baby. And so being able to really prioritize the relationship between me and my husband is so important. So thank you for inspiring me with with that.
Stephanie Greunke 11:36
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I mean, there definitely are people that will take their kids, you know, even babies on vacation with them. But for us, you know, with my anxiety, it just was something that we didn’t feel comfortable doing. So it took us much longer than a lot of people, but I’m glad we were able to do it. And even if you can just do like an overnight weekend or something, so you have some time away. It doesn’t have to be Mexico. But I think it can make a huge difference when you’re not trying to focus on your little ones needs. You can focus on your partner’s needs. So and vice versa.
Okay, so let’s get into the show because I want to learn so much from you. And I know you have so many gems to share with us. So as I mentioned in the introduction, you’re a child psychotherapist, and you have advanced certifications in attachment-oriented play therapy and early childhood trauma treatment. So can you explain to our listeners and really even to me really what child therapy is and what got you interested in the field and, and why you’re so passionate about it now?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 12:35
Absolutely. So play therapy is really one of many types of therapy within the world of child mental health treatment. So while adults go to therapy, and they use words to communicate, children naturally play. In play therapy, toys, specifically symbolic types of figurines, and puppets, doll houses, these are all considered the child’s words. And their play themes are considered their language or communication, which is what the play therapist observes and tracks over several sessions. And so play therapy is a very powerful tool, and addressing a young child’s inner world of emotion and helping them to process their life experiences.
And so personally, what really got me into the field, I grew up in a big loving Irish family with lots of kids around, and was always very aware of the magic inherent in childhood, and just the use of imagination and being able to cope with the ups and downs of life. So from an early age, I knew clearly that I wanted a career and serving children. And so I went on to complete my undergraduate and graduate degrees in early childhood development, psychology and social work. And when I got my first job about a decade ago, I was living in New York City, and was assigned to provide therapy with children at a clinic in the Bronx, where the zip code itself was connected to one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation. And so while the children who I was seeing were being referred by their schools for oppositional behaviors, you know, defiance in the classroom, these children had experienced significant trauma within their communities, and also interpersonally. And so I found that the more traditional behavioral types of therapy, so think like sticker charts and reward systems, or talk therapy, so think about just directly asking, you know, tell me what happened, how do you feel about what happened. I found that these interventions were simply not effective, because they weren’t designed to truly reach the inner worlds of children. And that really led me down a path of researching and reading anything I could find on neurobiology and childhood trauma. And so what researchers like Dan Siegel, and Bessel van der Kolk, Nadine Burke Harris, what they’ve discovered is that the toughest life experience and resulting traumatic memory actually bypass any linear, rational, higher levels of the brain. And these traumas get trapped in the lower levels of the brain called the brainstem. And the brainstem is responsible for the regulation of survival needs. So think infancy, right, like touch, connectedness, soothing patterns between parent and child. And so what this meant to me is that in treating traumatized children, really at a fundamental level, they require gentle, soothing interventions of connectedness, before being able to even attempt accessing any of the cognitive pieces that are part of more traditional therapies. And even then, there are sometimes simply no words to describe a traumatic experience, particularly if that experience occurred at a pre-verbal stage of development. And so this is really all how play therapy comes in. And I got just so excited about becoming a play therapist.
Stephanie Greunke 16:11
Yeah, so I’d love to…first of all, that is just so interesting. And I love to learn more like what that actually looks like. So if a child comes into you, and there’s a history of trauma, what is an appointment between you and the child look like, maybe like the first appointment, and then an example of like, follow up appointments and I know it’s going to be so different for a child, I’m trying to visualize what this looks like.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 16:33
Sure. So play therapist really meet children where they’re at. And so there are typically two different paths that a play therapist would take, there’s a more structured or directive type of play therapy, and then there’s a more unstructured or child-directed type of play therapy. So in structured play therapy, this really allows the therapist to direct the play by offering specific play materials that will encourage the child to work through a stressor, or practice specific coping skills. So I’ll often use this with anxious children who tend to feel a lot more safe kind of knowing what to expect and having some structure within the session. Whereas unstructured or child-directed play therapy really allows the child to direct the play and gain a feeling of mastery and control over the stressor. And so I’ll typically use this form of play therapy with children who are going through life adjustments, and really are seeking control. And so my office itself is full of play materials like puppets, a big sand tray with lots of symbolic figurines, doll houses and jails, yoga mats, and art materials, all kinds of tools that children can use to express their worlds. And so in play, really, if you were to think about the mechanisms of play that are so healing, play enables children to externalize, symbolize, and then miniaturize their their worlds. And so an example of this may be a child choosing a fire breathing dragon figurine to add to his dollhouse scene. And this may represent an angry parent, or if a child were to bury over and over again, figurine of a dog under a mountain of sand in the sandbox, which may represent beginning understandings and confusions about death. And so being connected to the child in their natural way of communicating, it really naturally unfolds and ultimately supports the child as they communicate these really difficult life experiences.
Stephanie Greunke 18:41
Gosh, this is so fascinating to me, I just love listening to you talk I don’t want you to ever stop. Well, it’s really does get on their level and help them communicate in a way where they know how to. I mean, I’m sure they want to communicate this information and, and release these emotions and release the stress and talk about it, but they’re not able to a young age. Many adults even you know, we’re unable to really express our feelings and get down to the deep rooted cause of what’s going on. So I think this is just fascinating. And I think it could be so helpful. So I’m even thinking so like a parent at home, obviously, you’re skilled and you’ve done so much certification and work in this. But are there things that a parent could pick up on watching their little one play at home?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 19:28
Absolutely. You know, and I think that this, it goes into the benefits of creating playful rituals and routines to really support a child’s health. I wanted to talk a little bit about the difference between rituals and routines, if that’s okay, because I think that it really plays into how parents can observe different play themes. And so the goal of routines we know is continuity. And so routines are so essential for young children, because our brains are pattern-seeking devices. And so they really help children to create and regulate their own internal clocks. But here’s the thing, when parents get caught up in daily tasks, and overemphasize the mechanics of routine, they really lose sight of connecting with their children. And so what ends up happening is we give attention to what they do if it’s really special, right? Like if they win at something, or if they get into trouble, right, so if they throw a plate on the floor. So on these occasions, children receive our undivided attention, but they learned that they only get it if they’re doing something special or misbehaving. And so this is where the rituals of play are so crucial, because the goal of rituals really is connection. Rituals create a time and a space that’s designated for togetherness, playfulness, and a real be-with type of attitude. And this be-with attitude, I’ll mention that a couple times in today’s podcast, because it really is the foundation for the play therapy way of connecting with children, because they truly learned that they don’t have to do anything special or attention-seeking to get your undivided attention. They just have to be who they naturally are in that moment.
Stephanie Greunke 21:13
No, I think that makes a lot of sense. And, you know, it is true that we sometimes kind of just go through the motions and praise or punish during extreme times, but to be able to pick up on those cues and, and do it throughout the day so that they know that they’re not just good if they do something great. Or they they don’t get attention if they do something bad. I can I can totally get that. So what are some of these playful rituals and routines that you help parents to create? What does it look like?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 21:41
So I love listening to your to your podcasts on peace and parenting and the sensitive child. Yeah, both of the presenters just had such great things to say, on these topics. I remember I was driving in the car. And I was like, ‘Yes, yes!’ I was like talking to you guys. So I love the idea of carving out a chunk of special time, daily. But I also think that there are even more ways to to develop daily brief rituals that really create connectedness. And there’s a child psychologist named Becky Bailey, who has a wonderful book, it’s called the ‘I Love You Rituals.’ And an example from her book takes under two minutes to practice. And it helps with the transition from school to home. It’s called ‘What did you bring home from school today?’ And so she instructs parents to greet their child being very attuned through eye contact and touch. And she says something like, ‘Hey, there you are. I’ve been waiting all day to hug you. Let me see what you brought home from school. You brought home those brown eyes, you brought home, that cute little mole on your arm, you brought your backpack and your coat, you brought your warm little hand. Let me hold that hand and let’s go home together.’ And this is so simple. But this moment of connectedness, right, of touch, eye contact, and really connecting to all of the sensory stimuli, it really lays the foundation for everything to come afterwards, right? Like once you get into the house, okay, now it’s time to you know, sit down and do homework and prep dinner. But this moment of connectedness, it really fills the child’s bucket, right, we think of all children wake up in the morning with a bucket that really needs to be filled with nurturing, and connectedness. And it really helps to to fill that before the second part of the day gets underway, and there’s lots of to do that parents have to check off the list.
Stephanie Greunke 23:37
No, I love that I kind of call something like transition time is something I talk about for parents and having that transition time for them between work and meeting their kids. Because it can be hard to shut off the work-mode from the mom-mode, right? And so I think that’s important for us to really tune into them as if we have that transition time, and then we really that they need that transition time and they need to be touched and heard and seen. It’s so important.
And you’re making me think of is something that happens at our house, my husband is the one that brings the kids home from school. And so they walk in the door, and one of the first things that happens usually is they run up to me and they’re like ‘Mommy!’ and I never want to lose this moment. I know, like, there’s gonna come a time where they’re like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m home.’ But you know, they run up to me, and they’re so excited to see me and we have this like special moment together. And even if I’m cooking something, sometimes it gets burned, because I’m just spending that time just really focusing on them. But one thing that I see that I do based on our conversation, and I’m sharing this in hopes that other people will also have this kind of insight, is something I do is my four year old will always bring home a artwork, and he’ll make me a piece of artwork every day. And the first thing that we kind of do is just talk about how great that artwork is. And so I’m kind of thinking as we’re talking like, even shifting away from praising that artwork to really looking at him as a person and welcoming him home and giving him the hug, before I praise the artwork.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 25:09
Absolutely. Yeah. And that is within the play therapy world, it’s sort of what we would call a noticing reflection, over a judgment type of reflection. So it’s so natural for us to want to say, ‘Oh, wow, you know, that’s an awesome piece of art,’ or ‘I really love what you what you drew.’ And it’s so incredibly empowering for a child to hear. But really, when you notice the details of their picture, ‘Wow, I really love that you chose the colors that are just right for you. And I really love that you wanted to show me this!’ This noticing is really all about helping the children to become aware of themselves. And this self awareness is a building block for developing self control and self confidence. And so I love that you have this ritual ready, and just being able to really utilize those kind of noticing types of reflections will just continue to increase his self confidence and all the work that that he does.
Stephanie Greunke 26:11
Yeah, absolutely. And another thing you know, we’ve been taught to with artwork is not going in that automatically to ‘That’s beautiful.’ But ‘What did you draw?’ and letting them explain and letting them tell the story and more so being like, ‘I can tell you worked really hard on that.’ versus ‘You’re a good artist.’ So those are some things that we picked up on. I don’t know how you feel about that. But that’s one thing we try to do as well.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 26:33
Absolutely no, absolutely really, really encouraging the process versus the outcome is so important. I talk about that a lot with parents who are really focused on outcomes, right. So like the test scores, or they’ll you know, they’ll hang up the assignment that got the A, and what we talked about is it’s just as important to hang up the assignment that got a C or a D, so long as you know that your child tried his or her best, because that really shows that you are noticing and appreciating the effort and the process and not just appreciating what the outcome is. And that’s a really rich type of message to share with children early on in their learning.
Stephanie Greunke 27:17
Hmm, that’s good. That’s good to remember as they’re headed into school. What else so besides welcoming them, and really paying attention to them after school with the touch and listening to them, seeing them, what other kind of playful rituals do you talk about with your parents?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 27:33
Sure. So a lot of times parents will come to me and they’ll say, you know, we really want to engage in these playful rituals. But we noticed that once they get home from school, they start to express really big feelings and tantrums. And so we end up spending, you know, a lot of time just trying to navigate through these emotions and kind of get through these tantrums. And so I really encourage parents to try to remember that a tantrum is a young child attempt at a request for help. And so the release of pent up emotions that come along with the tantrum is actually really quite healthy and part of the connectedness and their relationship. And now I’m sure that when my own son is throwing his shoes across the grocery store, I’ll chuckle at how calmly I’m talking about this right now. But I often encourage parents to visualize the child’s inner emotional container as like a pressure cooker. And so the child needs a powerful release every day, to let go of the emotion that’s been accumulated. And so while you know, there are certainly different tips and tactics that parents can use to navigate a tantrum. The very best, in my opinion, is for a parent to show up as calm and confident and caring. And as a child learns to navigate these strong emotions, they see that their parent can handle it and love them and their yuckiest moments. And so this is also really I think, part of b- with attitude that lays the foundation for a child to know ‘I love you and see you exactly where you’re at and how you are.’ And it gives them the courage and the confidence to then show you the pieces of their inner worlds.
Stephanie Greunke 29:18
Yeah, no, I, I love that. We’ve talked about that in other podcast, too, is just it’s them expressing all the stress and the pent up emotions. And I’m curious, this isn’t something we’ve talked about before on other podcast, but I know when I’m talking to moms, and what I’ve experienced personally, a lot of times these big feelings show up more around moms presence than dad. So you know, the dad will be hanging out with the baby and say, ‘Oh, yeah, baby was great,’ or ‘Oh, the toddler was great.’ And then the mom will hang out with the little one and the tantrums will just be one after the other. Do you see that happening? I’ve read that it’s because you know, sometimes the kids just really feel that maternal presence, and they kind of feel safer around mom, sometimes, you know, maybe she doesn’t react as strongly and she’s more calmly. Do you know anything about this? Am I making this up? Or is that something you see,
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 30:09
I definitely see it. I try and encourage moms to think of it as you know, when a child unleashes their yuckiest, biggiest, most out of control feelings on you, it’s because they know that you can handle it, and what a gift to know that your child feels that way toward you, and knows that they can express that to you. And I think that with moms, there’s so much nurturing and touch and eye contact and bonding just based on the relationship from infancy. And so there is this sense of attachment and regulation that comes at such a fundamental level in how moms interact with their young ones, that it really does sort of lay the foundation for children to express those big feelings to them, once they feel safe, once they feel that their mom can really handle what they’re sharing with them.
Stephanie Greunke 31:03
Yeah, I see that happening. And it makes sense to you know, there’s a lot of stimulation at school. And that’s why they come home, and they might have the tantrums but also they probably have been holding it together. Because they may not want to express these big, big feelings around their caregiver at preschool or daycare, or I even see this when my parents come to town is they want to be on their best behavior because grandma and grandpa are here. And then when grandma and grandpa fly home, then the tantrums are one after another. And they’re really expressing those big feelings of having their grandparents be gone for a while. It’s just it’s really true, everything that you’re saying. So I’m glad we’re able to, to dig into that.
So now from my understanding, you work primarily with kids age three to 10. So I’d kind of love to hear what are some of the major shifts that you see in behavior and development between these ages. So I’m a mom of a two and a four year old. I personally would love to know what I’m in for with these transitions that happen.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 31:58
Sure. So there’s so much variance cognitively. And so I’ll really stick to the emotional piece, right, because between the ages of three and 10, there’s just so much going on, there’s so many developmental milestones. And really, development is like a moving target. And so developmentally, when we think about the way that children play, we’re noticing that children in early childhood, so say three to five, they’re really looking at nurturing, and attachment oriented types of play themes, right? Who will be here for me in the world, who will protect me, who will be there to, you know, make sure that I have what I need. Whereas older children say, you know, six through 10, they’re starting to really work toward independence. And so children may develop more play themes that are around, you know, developing who they are and conference, in the different roles that they’re taking on beyond just the parent/child relationship. And so in my real young children that I work with, I see a lot of play themes, with caretaking of puppets or a baby dolls, or kind of expressing various unmet needs, whereas the older children will tend to assert their need for control in really healthy ways. And so what I like to share with parents about playing, whether it’s in play therapy, or if it’s just at home, in your play room, is that what a child plays out, they don’t then have to act out in their daily life. And so play is so important and nourishing for children of all ages. And just the opportunity for them to play out the different questions or confusions that they have is so fundamental for this developmental timeframe.
Stephanie Greunke 33:59
But little boys like crashing trucks into each other, and wanting to wrestle. Is that like a testosterone thing, though, too? Is that like a little boy thing? Because I’m like, I don’t think they’re aggressive kids, but they do like to smash their cars into each other.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 34:12
Absolutely. And you know, and play is how children experience the world, right? So for the first 10 years of my career, I worked solely with children who had experienced trauma. So, you know, that is just kind of one hat that I wear when it comes to interpreting play themes. But now that I’ve opened up my private practice here in North Carolina, I’m working with kids who are dealing with different life adjustment, you know, moving or welcoming a new baby into the family. So these aren’t necessarily traumas, but they certainly are stressors. And so when it comes to play, and even just aggressive play, I really like to share with parents that that’s all a natural and normal part of their self expression. And that when we kind of have filters of judgment, that when children start to doubt themselves and say, ‘Oh, no, you know, maybe this is not something that I should be doing.’ But just really being able to support a child’s natural play process, while also keeping them safe. It really encourages that healthy development, whether they’ve experienced a trauma, or they’re just kind of navigating the developmental milestones that are inherent in childhood.
Stephanie Greunke 35:22
So can I ask you then – what are some of the signs and symptoms that a child may exhibit or life experience that may make a child a great candidate for play therapy or early childhood trauma treatment?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 35:35
Sure, so whether it’s a trauma like loss, or abuse or neglect, or more of an adjustment, like we talked about moving houses or getting used to having a new baby in the home, all children are under some degree of stress simply because of the developmental types of issues that they’re working to resolve. And because young children don’t have the cognitive or language skills to formulate questions and express their ideas directly, they creatively ask questions through their their behavior, mainly misbehavior. And so play therapy can really help to give children a space to process these feelings and effectively regain trust in not only themselves, but also in their caregivers, and in their worlds. And so, you know, parents, moms, dads – you know your children better than anybody. If you’re noticing that a child is having some variations in just their their bodily regulation, right, so with potty training, they’re making regressions, or sleep wise, they’re having more nightmares, or it’s more difficult falling to sleep. Oftentimes, there are these physical types of manifestations of anxiety or depression that show up first, that kids won’t necessarily come to us and say, ‘Oh, you know, I’m feeling I’m feeling nervous about this, or I feel sad about this.’ And so really being able to look at behaviors as communication is so important in the first step and kind of identifying if a child would benefit from mental health treatment.
Stephanie Greunke 37:07
Okay, so what if a parent identifies that play therapy would be really beneficial for their little ones or their kids? How would they find the provider that’s trained in this? And does insurance cover that all?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 37:19
Sure. So all play therapists first have to have a mental health license. And so you would have to be a psychologist or a clinical social worker and mental health clinician, and then essentially, you would look for three additional letters after that title, which is RPT, which stands for registered play therapist. And so that shows that the child therapist has advanced certification and training in play therapy specifically. And so in play therapy training, essentially what we learn is how to interpret play themes. So that effectively not a word has to be communicated in the play session for the therapist who really be able to understand what the child is trying to communicate just in their, in their symbolic types of representations. And so there’s a national organization that actually has a great website that it’s it’s my go to, for trying to find play therapists around the country, it’s the Association for Play Therapy, and their website a4pt.org. And you would be able to put in your zip code, and you would be able to find a play therapist in your region. And most insurance providers do cover play therapy, as it’s a gold standard for child mental health treatment. But since all insurance plans and practices can be different, it’s really just a matter of doing that research and finding the right fit for you.
Stephanie Greunke 38:47
Sure, okay. Great. So I kind of wanted to shift gears a little bit, I loved what you had to say about play based therapy. So thank you for spending time on that. And now this is in line with what we were talking about. But I wanted to focus on school, because we don’t have a whole lot of information over at Whole Mamas Club about going back to school, and how to support our kids, and how we can stay sane, with all of the homework and all the transitions that come along with that. So I’d kind of love to hear what are some of the common concerns that come up, and you work with kids when it comes to the school environment? And, you know, also what can we do to set them up for success?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 39:27
You know, I think the biggest concern that I’ve noticed in my practice, is that oftentimes we forget that development and learning occur in cycles. And so there’s a unique pace to each child’s life, right? Sometimes children learn things, and it’s really quick and intense. And sometimes there’s more of a slow and calm pace to their life. And so remembering that growth in cycles really means that children have lots of opportunities to learn something is so important. It’s not that learning is about gathering and applying a specific set of information. It’s about the process of learning and self discovery. And so some of the older children that I see who have recently entered the world of standardized testing, this can be really challenging, because really loving and well intentioned parents will get caught up and you know, in their own anxiety about you know, ‘Will my child be okay, will they get into the school that’ll be best for them?’ And this creates this sense of anxiety and social comparison for children of, ‘Oh, gosh, you know, will I be okay? And will I do as good as the kid next to me?’ And so I think that really remembering this piece that that, you know, it’s not a race. That we learn, and we grow in cycles, and that it is far more important to consider raising well rounded and emotionally healthy children, rather than solely successful ones.
Stephanie Greunke 40:59
I think that’s great. I can see already the competition that comes into play when you’re looking at even like Waldorf schools, and the cost is associated with it. And every parent just wants to do what’s best for their kid. And that can just be stressful when you’re looking at it from where do you live to send your kids the best school? And how do you afford the best school? And really, I think what you’re saying is that it’s a learning process. And kids can do well on a wide variety of environments. And you know, what you’re talking about in the beginning, there’s a lot of things that we can do to support them at home to help with their growth and development as well.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 41:37
Absolutely. There’s a wonderful child psychologist named Alison Gopnik. And I don’t know if you’ve read any of her books, but one of my favorites is called ‘The Carpenter and the Gardener.’ And it really spells this whole concept out beautifully, just about how there’s sometimes this compulsion to get all the information and to be the carpenter, to have everything very linear. But the reality is, is that when it comes to parenting, it’s about being the gardener. It’s about just kind of taking what comes and changing our framework. You know, the difference between a flower and a weed is really just our filter and our judgment. And so she really spells this out so, so beautifully in her book.
Stephanie Greunke 42:23
Oh, I’ll check that one out. Thanks for the recommendation. So let’s, let’s talk about homework because I’m sure that’s something that comes up a lot. There’s the kids may not want to do it, or they’re struggling with it. And then that creates a lot of stress and tension for both sides, for the parents that are trying to help the kid and for the kid trying to figure out this homework. So what do you help parents with when it comes to the dreaded homework time?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 42:49
Definitely, well, you know, I think it goes back to parental mindset, rand really thinking about how we come into a situation is really a mirror image for our kids. And so coming to the table, literally, with your own calm attitude is the foundation. There’s an acronym that I really like to use with parents, it’s called SOOTHE, which is a really apt type of acronym that a play therapist had coined, her name is Paris Goodyear-Brown, and she’s just wonderful. And SOOTHE stands for coming in with ‘S’ – a soft tone of voice and soft tone of face, because kids are constantly picking up not only on our tone of voice, but on our effect and kind of our facial expressions. ‘O’ is to organize the child’s experience. The second ‘O’ is to offer choices, the ‘T’ is for touch for togetherness, the ‘H’ is to hear the underlying concern. And the ‘E’ is to end and let it go. And so this is a particularly important when we’re thinking about a child’s frustrations, at their abilities and their competencies, and really being able to hear the underlying concern about kind of what this means for the child’s impression about themselves. And, so really being able to kind of calmly come into the homework experience is such a fundamental piece of being with with children, and a bit of advice that my own mom, who’s a veteran second grade teacher, shared with me is for parents to to really think about homework completion as an extension of the child’s day, and an opportunity for the child to share how they felt about what they learned that day. Right. So it’s not just about the performance piece of, you know, I’m going to show you what I can do what I learned, it’s more about how do you feel about what you learned? And this goes back to showing up with that kind of be with attitude.
Stephanie Greunke 44:55
Now, I love that that’s you the acronym too. That just makes me feel just calm when you’re explaining it. But what how does this all play out, though? So like, it sounds good at surface surface level, but I can just imagine, you know, kids are coming home from a long day, they’re exhausted, they’re sitting at the table. They’re like, ‘I hate math, I’m not good at math.’ So what is it a mom to do or a partner to do in that moment?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 45:17
Sure. So this is a great opportunity to kind of have some of those routines and rituals already set up, so you have those as go-to’s. So I’d say a couple just ideas would be to create a regular time for homework and some kind of sensory tool to mark the beginning and an end of homework time. So this could be singing a special song that marks the beginning or the end, having a special dance beforehand or afterward, you know, some kind of ritual of connectedness that really marks kind of like bookends this time that can cause stress. Another would be really just providing a clean and organized space for children. We know that the brain is pattern seeking. And so being able to model for children the importance of having an organized and clean space, so that we can have an organized framework going into homework is so important. And then taking occasional what I call brain breaks, to practice healthy coping skills that you want to naturally instill in your child. So if you’re noticing that your child is really getting frustrated, or is really feeling stuck, or it’s just starting to like fidget, and just really needing a break, instead of forcing the process or saying, ‘We have to get through this,’ you know, ‘We’re sitting here now,’ being able to follow their lead and just say, ‘Hey, let’s take a little brain break. And let’s practice, you know, a breathing skill.’ And one of my favorites, having lived in New York for so long, was teaching pizza breaths, right, so we’re going to sniff in through our nose, like we’re sniffing the delicious ingredients of the pizza. And then we’re going to cool it down, we’re going to cool down all those toppings. And so just being able to find a fun and applicable coping skill that you want to teach to your child can really encourage your child to be able to take brain breaks when they need to when they’re in school. And they’re starting to really become disregulated and overwhelmed with the pressures of the school day.
Stephanie Greunke 47:21
Yeah, and I think a lot of this can be important for parents to do, too. I mean, parents also just had a really busy day, and maybe sitting down with their little one trying to help them with their homework can be extremely stressful, even though they’re not the one doing the homework and just sitting with them and the patience that it takes to keep calm and to keep the the SOOTHE acronym happening. So I think think taking breaks for both the parent and the kid are so important. And doing them together can be just great. You know, having that time to connect and disconnect from the homework is a beautiful idea. So thank you for for sharing that one. When does homework start? My kids aren’t quite there yet. But when is it? Is it like first grade, is it?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 48:04
Yeah, you know it, all schools are very different just in terms of how they approach homework, but I found that there’s some homework that just starts getting assigned in first grade. And then it really starts to ramp up in second and third grade. And then third grade is typically when standardized testing comes onto the scene. And so there’s a lot more kind of pressure around performance that comes in around third grade. And so just being able to kind of set these healthy routines and rituals at it at a at a young age can be so helpful, and kind of developing their own internal clocks and rhythms. Okay, this is this is when we start our homework, and these are the options that we have, if we start to feel like we need a break. And it’s just all a really healthy pattern for kids and families to to start.
Stephanie Greunke 48:48
You know, one thing that I’m doing now, I don’t know if this is helpful for the listeners, or if you have any information or insight on this. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the company called Highlights, they have like these magazines and they have workbooks for preschoolers. My parents gave one to Otto as a gift. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know that he’s gonna like this.’ But he looked at it. And he loved it. And he would not put it down. He wanted to trace the letters of the alphabet. And he wanted to find things in the picture. And you want to identify what was silly in the pictures. And he loved that. So yeah, I agree. Like, even though homework doesn’t maybe start until first grade or the pressure doesn’t really boil up until a little bit later in their schooling, it still could be a fun idea to play with these worksheets and kind of play with these concepts so that, you know, you’re more prepared when homework comes around, and you know, to learn to take breaks and have it be more playful. I think. I think that’s a great start. What do you think?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 49:46
Absolutely. And I really love how you how you use play within that. Because I think sometimes when parents come to the table with their own mindset of like, ‘Oh, no, this is the drudgery of homework,’ because children pick up on they see, ‘Okay, homework has to just by necessity be stressful, and something that I have to cross off my to do list.’ But if you can kind of set this foundation of this is an opportunity for us to be together, for you to share with me what you’re proud of, share with me what you learned, a way for us to be playful and connect, it actually then becomes this daily routine and ritual that hopefully is something that you look forward to together something that the child can then carry with them as they become independent into their middle school and high school years, where they can really look back and say, ‘That was a time that I really connected with my with my parent, that’s a time where I really felt seen and heard.’
Stephanie Greunke 50:41
Yeah, and I love the idea of clearing off the table the table or making the environment clean, too, because I can see how that would add more stress to if you’re trying to do homework and the tables filled with like dirty dishes and you’re trying to like move around, but it’s not comfortable. It’s hard to keep focused. So I love that tip. This is not something I would have thought of. So it’s great information. Now, we talked about taking breaks from homework. But one thing I’m wondering about your take on and your insight into is the after school activity world. So is there a thing as scheduling too many after school activities? And what should we consider when it comes to over scheduling?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 51:23
Sure. So I think in going back to that be with attitude that’s so fundamental for the play therapist, but that is also very much fundamental. In parenthood, I’d go ahead and say a resounding yes, there is a thing is being over scheduled. You know, I think that engaging in one after school sport or hobby that the child has identified as being something that they’re interested in, that can really go a long way in developing self confidence and practicing social skills. But when I meet kids in my practice, who are signed up for three or four afterschool activities. I know that logistically just considering how many hours are in the day that their connection needs, and their special time needs. And they are just unstructured play needs are not being met. And I’m also assuming that their parental connection needs are also suffering, too, because that’s a lot on an already busy parents plate to be shuttling kids to and from activities. And so I really do, you know, in early childhood, children really do need that time to play and explore with their parents and just have that opportunity for connection. You know, like, when we think about getting everything done on our to do list, it’s very mechanical. And that’s when touch and eye contact and all of that really important nurturing, tends to take a seat to the to the side. And that’s really what children need in early childhood. You know, as kids develop into teenagers, of course, there’s a benefit to being busy and engaged and extracurriculars because we know that this can help to mitigate opportunities for getting into trouble after school. But when we think about early childhood, play and connectedness is really the foundation for everything else.
Stephanie Greunke 53:18
Yeah, no, I think you explained that really well. And that makes a lot of sense. You know, I think about my four year old, we enrolled him in jujitsu, and he was doing it three nights out of the week, sometimes four, and you know, he’s in preschool from eight till four. And we would take him there at five. And it really would it felt so rushed, and we really lost that connection, and he would come home, and then we have dinner real quick, and then we put him to bed. And I’m like, I don’t really think I spent more than an hour just with you today. I mean, it was shuttling you and it was making sure we got things done. And we were on time. And so yeah, I can like feel that tension. And I totally agree that really being mindful, it’s not that you can’t do any, but just notice how you’re feeling. And notice if there is a change in there be behavior when it comes to scheduling activities.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 54:05
Yeah, absolutely. And even thinking about like, you know, if you’re a parent whose child is currently enrolled in two or three extracurricular activities, and you’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, you know, like they’re already enrolled, I paid the fees,’ you know, even thinking about those brief rituals that you can do, getting in and out of the ca of just making eye contact, and really being able to establish that togetherness that even if your schedule is full, even if your child is enrolled in these activities, that you’re still making time every day to connect back to the attachment piece to connect back to who they are to look at their eyes, to really connect with the whole little person that they are and not just all the activities that they’ve accomplished during that day.
Stephanie Greunke 54:53
Right. I mean, if you think there’s an exercise I did one time where you held hands, it was like in self development workshop and you held hands of somebody and you had to look in their eye for one minute. And you couldn’t take your eyes off that person for one minute. And it was so uncomfortable. But it was like that one minute made such a difference when you were connecting and really present with that person. So I agree with what you’re saying, you know, there is time, even when you’re taking them out of the carseat and you’re giving them a hug, and you’re looking at them and holding their hand as you’re walking them into the activity, there definitely is a time and a place to build that connection. So I think it really is just what is feeling comfortable for you considering if that’s working for you. And then you know, allowing there to be room to change plans,if all of a sudden your kid loves going to the two or three activities, and often they don’t want to go, that might be a time to reconsider what that looks like for you.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 55:46
Absolutely. And it also goes back to sort of what we communicated about kind of learning and growing comes in cycles is that, while we want to remember that children don’t have to get it right the first time, it’s also important for us to be role models for that with our kids being able to say, ‘Hey, you know what, like, mommy or daddy, like, we signed you up for these activities. But you know, now we realized that we’re not going to do that next year, because we have less time to do these things. And we really want to do this with you. And we really want to have downtime with you.’ So I also really encourage parents to be gentle on themselves and to not beat themselves up. If you know, the first time around, they’re doing something that they notice is not necessarily going well for their child or is healthy for the family is that we all learn and grow and develop in cycles. And being a parent means that we get to learn alongside our child and that we get to grow with our child and as a family with in relationship. And that’s all part of the connectedness of the be with attitude is that you know, even though you’re the grown up in the room, it’s still you are learning in this dance with your child in this be with attitude of really being able to see what is going to produce the kind of connectedness that lays the foundation for everything else.
Stephanie Greunke 57:00
I think that’s so spot on and us being able to admit that we were wrong, whether it’s if we’re having a moment where we’re trying to be calm, but we snapped because they’re having a tantrum, or if we’re sitting down at the dinner table, and we cannotstay calm and stay focused, like these things are going to happen. And I think being able to stop and say, ‘Look, mommy made a mistake, I’m sorry,’ that is such a huge learning lesson that you’re giving them and allowing yourself to make a mistake allows them to feel more comfortable, and they make a mistake. So thank you so much for sharing that I love how you’re able to see so many different sides and how parents know that we’re all on this journey together. And we are all learning and we are all growing every single day. So I appreciate you so much. And where can our listeners learn more about you if they want to connect or learn more about your your clinic if they’re in North Carolina?
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 57:48
Sure. So I have a website. It’s ashevillechildtherapy.com,, and the website provides information if your local about enrolling in play therapy here. And it also share some of the titles of chapters that I’ve co-authored in different play therapy texts about trauma and resiliency. And with my little one due any day now I’ll be taking a bit of a break from presenting. But I always love to connect with folks and hear about different conferences in early childhood or opportunities to speak at schools or childcare centers. Because in my private practice, while I love being my own boss, I also really miss being able to in a very interdisciplinary way, like connect with teachers and pediatricians and nutritionists. And so I would just love to be able to connect with lots of folks and hear the type of work that you’re doing and possibly be able to, you know, to meet at various conferences and trainings and, and have a real collective.
Stephanie Greunke 58:52
Well, that’s beautiful. Well enjoy the remaining time that you have in your third trimester and your new baby on the way you’re so gracious to spend this time on your maternity leave with us. So thank you so much for being here. And best of luck with everything. Well keep in touch. I’ll be thinking about you.
Jillian Kelly-Wavering 59:09
Thank you so much. And thank you and Elana for all the work that you do. I look forward to listening to all your future podcasts.
Stephanie Greunke 59:16
Oh, thank you. We appreciate that. So much fun to have you on.
Thank you for listening to today’s show. And Jillian, if you’re listening thank you so much for spending time with us during your maternity leave. We wish you the very best and enjoy all those snuggles with your little baby. And don’t forget if you’d like to cheers with me and unwind from your busy day a mommy with a delicious low sugar organic hot cocoa that has the power of reishi mushrooms to support a more restful sleep, or you want to start your day with a blended smoothie that’s full of superfoods to support your adrenal energy and immune system, head over to foursigmatic.com/wholemamas to get 15% off your order. If you’re not into smoothies or hot cocoa, which I’d be kinda shocked, consider trying their popular mushroom coffee’s, golden milk latte mix or their matcha. Grab 15% off by visiting foursigmatic.com/wholemamas.
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- What play-based therapy is and what it looks like
- Creating daily playful rituals and routines to support development
- Understanding and navigating tantrums
- Developmental changes at different ages
- Considerations for overscheduling
- Tips for helping kids with homework
- Jillian’s website
- I Love You Rituals (Author: B. Bailey)
- Play Therapy Interventions to Enhance Resilience (Editors: D. A. Crenshaw, R. Brooks, & S. Goldstein)
- Creative Arts and Play Therapy for Problems of Attachment (Editors: C. A. Malchiodi & D. A. Crenshaw)
- The Carpenter and The Gardener (Author: A. Gopnik)
- The HMHB Weekly Email Series
- Whole Mamas Pregnancy Program
- Nourish Kids Medicine Kit and Ebook
- Dr. Elana’s Medical Center: Nourish Medical Center
- Follow Steph and Elana on Instagram
- Whole Mamas Podcast Archive
This episode's guest
Jillian is a psychotherapist working with children (age 3-10) and their families. Prior to opening her practice, Asheville Child Therapy PLLC, in North Carolina, she worked in community mental health centers with at-risk children in the south Bronx in New York City for nearly a decade. Jillian’s education and advanced training includes a Master’s degree from Columbia University School of Social Work, completion of a fellowship with the National Health Service Corps, certification in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF CBT), and completion of post-graduate training to become a Registered Play Therapist (RPT).
She is a graduate of the Association for Play Therapy’s Leadership Academy and she has served as a Board Director and Vice President of the New York Association for Play Therapy. Jillian has taught as an Adjunct Lecturer on the topics of Play Therapy, Trauma, and Resilience, has co-authored several publications including Dear Mr. Leprechaun: Nurturing Resilience in Children Facing Loss and Grief; Play Therapy with Children Facing Medical Challenges; The Use of Puppets in Psychodynamic Play Therapy. She is a frequent presenter in the topics of Play and Expressive Arts Therapies nationally, and recently internationally! Most importantly, Jillian respects and delights in the work of accompanying children on their journeys through hard times: from expressing big feelings, to uncovering bravery, setting healthy boundaries, and ultimately healing.