Here is April’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My seven-year-old daughter was bitten by a dog last week, and she’s still not over it. She’s having nightmares, doesn’t want to play outside for fear of another dog attacking her, and she’s acting sad and listless. I’m worried about her. I feel like I’ve tried everything to get her back to her old self. Is this the kind of thing people come in to therapy for, or is therapy only for divorce and behavioral problems?
Signed, Worried Mom
Dear Worried Mom,
Your daughter has been through a very scary experience. I’m sorry she was bitten by a dog and I hope her physical wounds are healing well. It sounds like she’s having a hard time feeling safe right now. Therapy might help her deal with her fear and sadness and find a way to feel safe again.
People come in to therapy for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it is because a family is changing because of divorce or death, or because a child is acting out at home or at school. But there are lots of other reasons people come in. We have worked with other children who have been bitten by dogs, or were afraid of bees, or were afraid of throwing up. We have worked with kids who were being bullied at school, or who were bullying others. We have worked with kids who were in car crashes, or in almost-car crashes and couldn’t stop worrying about the “what-ifs.” We have worked with kids whose dogs have died, who have viewed something scary or shocking online and couldn’t stop thinking about it, and kids who have felt intense school pressure. In short, we have worked with kids and families around lots of different problems. If you feel like you are out of ideas for how to help your child deal with something difficult, consulting with a therapist is an appropriate next step.
I would encourage you to find a play therapist who has experience working with young children and their families. Play is a child’s natural language. Children often don’t yet have the capacity to verbalize their thoughts and feelings; they use play to express themselves and learn from others. The therapist’s office, with clear time parameters around session length, provides a sense of safety. This is one of the few places where there are few expectations placed on the child and the child is free to explore their thoughts and feelings in age-appropriate and creative ways with a trained professional who can offer therapeutic feedback. In sessions, kids learn how to identify and cope with big thoughts and feelings. They find ways to sooth themselves, and create healthier stories about themselves and their experiences. It is often helpful for parents and other family members to sometimes be included in play therapy sessions, so they can be a part of the solution and help to solidify the changes made.
Play therapists use toys, art, sand tray, games, music, puppets, books, clay, imaginative play, and many other means to help children and families achieve their therapeutic goals. I would encourage you to find a local play therapist, so that you and your daughter can integrate the scary experience of being bitten by a dog into her understanding of the world and allow her to get back to feeling safe and secure once again.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.