Child's play that helps wounds heal

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The Independent Online
A seven-year-old boy spent six weeks crafting his clay pot, then smashed it to smithereens. It may sound like a futile exercise, but making and breaking is all part of a valuable healing process.

Pottery is just one of the many play techniques employed at the Doncaster Therapeutic Centre, a project funded by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and social services.

The first batch of sexually abused children embarked on the therapy programme last May. Many are now showing signs of coming to terms with their painful pasts.

Christine Furness, the project's senior practitioner, is delighted with the results. "We get feedback from the children themselves and the parents that they are more able to relax, which is really important," she said. "A lot of the kids are very stressed out, pretending to be OK, when inside they don't feel OK. But after a while, stress-related ailments such as headaches and tummy aches calm down, they are more able to make friends and keep them, and they begin to feel comfortable talking to people."

The children - aged between 3 and 16 - are referred to the Doncaster projects via social services, after discussion with the family. The therapist is frank with the child, as Ms Furness explained. "We say: `We know you've been sexually abused. We're sorry about that, but you can't change that. What we can do perhaps is to provide some space and help you to look at some of the feelings that that has left you with'."

The one-to-one play sessions help children who have suffered sexual abuse to learn to "live in the present and for the future". Ms Furness said: "It's a place where they can actually feel and do things that they wouldn't be able to do in a normal life situation. A small child might want to play with the dolls in a way that gets rid of its feelings. An older child might want to talk like an adult or do two things at once. They might paint at the same time as talking, so they don't have to look into the eyes of the therapist."

The play is always "child-led". And each child behaves differently. Some are "controllers", others "victims". "A child might say: `I'm angry. I'm upset. I'm disgusted. I can't concentrate. People are out to get me'," said Ms Furness.

"But a lot of the playing is very caring, perhaps in the way the children would like to have been cared for or protected themselves. Alternatively, there might be a lot of happy drawings, as if to say `this is how life should be.' Some of the children obviously have an idealised view of life."

After 13 one-hour weekly sessions, there is a review. So far, all 74 of the children who have participated in the project have signed up for a further 13 sessions. The centre is already bursting at the seams, with a long waiting list.

This year, the Independent's Christmas Victims of Abuse appeal is in support of the NSPCC's work helping those who have suffered from abuse. Any money you donate will go towards expanding the Doncaster Centre, to help increase the number of children it helps, provide extra play equipment, develop group work and follow-up sessions at home.