The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


January 24, 2013

Sarah Coyne, columnist: Acting out tornado is therapy for kids

JOPLIN, Mo. — There was a group of little girls running through the living room, screaming at the top of their lungs. Some were mine, and some were friends, but all were wild and sweet.

I imagined them as a pack of chattering monkeys, hooting and squealing their way through a jungle of vines and branches on their way to the next playground. As far as play dates go, this one was measuring up with perfect normalcy.

Except for one thing.

The games these girls were playing had nothing to do with princesses and pirates or even witches and goblins. They were pretending, but it was something altogether different than what you expect from little girls.

They had conjured up a tornado for themselves, and they were fleeing its wrath.

I knew for a fact that none of these girls had been directly harmed by Joplin’s tornado, but I also knew that it had had an impact on all of their little lives, in ways they probably hadn’t even grasped. Their imaginations were on full blast that day, and the tornado was their common protagonist.

My preschooler yelled across the room to a playmate, “I’ll be right back to save you!”

It was heart-wrenching for me to watch, and I started to consider making them change their game. The tornado was just too scary. Too real. Too memorably horrific to be play-acted by such innocent children.

But for them, it was just play. Or that was what it appeared to be on the surface.

Besides being a scenario for them to indulge in a little bit of imaginary danger, pretending to be caught in a tornado was also a chance for the kids to explore their own worries. Letting their minds wander to scary situations seems both natural and — though I have no psychology degree to back up my theory — therapeutic.

Although I knew these girls hadn’t lost homes or family to Joplin’s tornado, it still knocked up against their lives and nestled into their minds. It created doubts, worries and insecurities. The tornado had been a big part of their short lives, and it made an impact on how they viewed the world from then on.

For them to act out those worries in the safety of a solid home on a sunny day seemed like a good thing. A beneficial act of brain training, maybe.

It turns out that adults do the same thing. For me, it happens in dreams or daydreams. Nightmare scenarios play out in my head, and I’m forced to respond to their circumstances.

I flee house fires, chase kidnappers, confront burglars and hide from hurricanes.

These are bits of the world that I’d rather never run across, but my mind knows what it needs in order to cope with the possibilities: Practice. Familiarity. A plan so that if the worst happens, I’ll have a chance at emotional stability.

I would assume that there’s a difference between part-time imagining and full-time dwelling, and parents would certainly be advised to use their best judgment according to their child’s level of fixation or worry. But in the normal course of life, it seems right to let children wander through reactions to fear within the confines of a safe environment.

It seems healthy to teach them that scary situations are not insurmountable, but manageable. And it seems like pretend play is one perfectly gentle way to let our kids practice their own methods of coping.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.

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