Telling a New Story: Helping Children to Heal from Homelessness
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Children who are homeless tell stories of living with uncertainty, chaos, and unpredictability. Play therapy is a therapeutic model that helps children cope with the trauma of being homeless. At Cuidando Los Niños in Albuquerque, New Mexico, play therapists work with children to “re-story” their young lives through play. By reframing their experiences, children can begin to heal and tell new stories.
Play therapy is a therapeutic model that can help children cope with the trauma of being homeless. At Cuidando Los Niños in Albuquerque, New Mexico, children are telling their stories to play therapists as a way to move beyond homelessness. HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans visited the program and met with Carol Montoya, Play Therapist, to learn more.
Cuidando Los Niños means “Caring for the Children” in Spanish. The center’s mission is to provide high-quality early childhood development and therapeutic services to meet the special needs of children experiencing homelessness. The Center also provides support services to help stabilize and re-house families. It is a public/private partnership that cares for the whole family, with high rates of success.
When I visit, families are arriving and children’s voices are singing in the hallways. A small toddler with sparkling eyes pulls a plastic orange bin to the door. Carol Montoya, a Play Therapist, greets me warmly and leads me to her office. It is decorated with shelves of well-organized toys: a child’s dream room.
Play therapy is a form of counseling for children who do not have the language skills for talk therapy. Therapists help children to communicate their emotions through play. Carol explains that she engages in play with children on their terms. “I allow the children to lead me in play. If they want me to play mom and role-play, that is what we do. The child is the leader. Sometimes they may just want me to read them a story.” Many of the children who come to play therapy are bilingual, so Carol works in both Spanish and English.
Play therapy relies on the therapist to interpret the child’s play through metaphor. Play is an opportunity for children to express emotions and “re-story” their lives. The stories of children who face homelessness are often filled with chaos, uncertainty, and fear – things that no child should have to experience. Using play to “re-story” allows them to reframe their experiences and to begin to heal.
While toys are purposefully displayed by the therapist, it is the children who tell the stories of their lives through play. “In the beginning there is a lot of chaos, but it is amazing that children know how to tell stories. Children are natural storytellers. I see conflicts arising inside them. But when children feel very safe they are able to resolve these emotions, re-story their lives and start the healing process to let go of some of the ugly things inside.”
Play therapy is especially beneficial to children who have experienced homelessness. “Their lives are so chaotic and inconsistent. They have trouble processing all the change they experience, so they often bottle up their emotions. When they come here, they start to feel that it is safe to feel what they are feeling.” Carol has watched children transform. With help, children who appear angry, closed-off, and incommunicative can become nurturing, tender, and open.
One three-year old girl started play therapy with Carol several months ago. She would enter the room, hide under the table, and cry. She did this for several weeks. One day she became fascinated with baby doll figurines. “She was drawn to them and started bringing them to me, rocking them and treating them in a symbolically nurturing manner.” The next session she sat on Carol’s lap and cried the whole session. After that, she seemed to understand that she was safe. Today she is smiling, talking, and playing with the doll figurines. She is progressing both in the classroom and at home.
Parents are invited to play therapy sessions to observe their children, and are offered parenting classes from the Family Resource Team at Cuidando Los Niños. They are taught how to play with their children. “I come from a family framed system, so I believe in training the whole family unit. I meet with parents to give them the tools and support to help their child heal.”
Carol meets with the Family Resource Team and classroom teachers once a week to discuss how to support each family and child. Children attending Cuidando Los Niños may be living in shelters, cars, doubled up with other families, or in transitional housing. There are two hundred children on the waiting list.
At Cuidando Los Niños, families are stabilizing and growing into new lives. Their children are offered safe, consistent, and early interventions - and the opportunity to tell their own new stories of their lives.
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