Theraplay to Shape a Child's Brain
Interview: Dafna Lender, Theraplay Institute


I tend to shy away from personal posts, but today I want to. I've realized that I don't experience joy.

For my book, I've been reading and writing lately about what psychologists call affect regulation. A lot of it has to do with what we call "self control," that is, mastering the expression of emotion and calming ourselves down. When I get really mad at something someone says, but reflect that she didn't mean to hurt me and temper my response, that's affect regulation.

In our puritanical and competitive culture, we tend to focus on the control aspect: don't get angry, don't whine. But the other side of affect regulation is the ability to intensify and extend positive states: happiness, anticipation, fun, joy. It's the side of life that can get overlooked in parenting.

A lot of times, parents may have the impulse to squelch their kids' joy. It's too noisy, the kid will get over-excited, she has to learn that life has many disappointments, he should  learn to be  a  man.

An event last Christmas resonated with me very deeply. On Christmas eve, I showed a three-year-old girl I know the  wrapped present Mike and I had gotten for her, intensifying my anticipation and hers.

On Christmas morning, while the adults were still getting their wits about them, she went to the tree, unwrapped the present with delight and began carrying the baby doll around the house.  She was coming back up the hall from the bedrooms as her mom  went down the hall and saw her. I was just coming out of the bathroom, so I saw it all.

Mom's face began to  form itself into anger: We were supposed to all open our presents together. And the tiny little girl, as she looked up at  Mommy, looked terrified. She had been so happy, but evidently she had done something very wrong.

I relate so much to that feeling: I was so happy, and then things went really wrong.

A soothing word to  her mother  cooled things out, and  she didn't get yelled at.  But the moment may have helped teach her that joy can be snatched away. Which it can, of course. But I think we should try to hold onto it.

Kids need to learn to experience these joyful feelings without getting so over-amped that they melt down. Fathers can play a big role in learning this, according to Dafna Lender, training director and clinical coordinator for Theraplay. When he throws his baby up in the air, laughing with him, he's intensifying the excitement. Then, he cradles the baby, calming him down again.

I can remember playing this way with my father -- I broke his rib once, in fact, but he was very nice about it and didn't make me feel bad or scared at the time. Nevertheless, I find it extremely difficult to get excited when good things happen. In fact, I tend to feel worried or stressed out.

Oh, I got a book deal! Oh, no, now I have to try and write a book. What if I fail?

I knew that my positive feelings were usually tempered with negative thoughts, but this is the first time I've realized that I don't know joy.

Okay, so I am a competent, self-aware adult. What should I do about it?