Beyond Words: Synergetic Play Therapy Benefits Even Without Language

By Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

I quietly sat down in the middle of the playroom and waited. I silently wondered which child, if any, would approach me. There I was, the only native English speaker in this Russian orphanage. I have never felt so out of my element. Before long a girl who appeared about six came forward. At the top of her head she wore a very large bow, making her look even younger than she actually was. Her eyes watched me with wary curiosity. She approached me quickly and in an overwhelming way, blowing bubbles from a bubble maker directly into my face. I tried to respond with words, but quickly remembered that I didn’t speak Russian and she didn’t speak English. I felt nervous and unsettled for a moment. How was I going to do play therapy with this little orphan girl if we couldn’t even speak to each other? I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the magic of synergetic play therapy has very little to do with the spoken word and everything to do with the level of attunement between the therapist and the child.

I also reminded myself that a mother and a baby do not speak the same language, but somehow they communicate. I took another breath, became present, and we began to play. She approached me rapidly, coming at me from all angles, leaving little room for my personal space. I began to feel her internal chaos, her struggle to be able to predict her environment, and her challenge of staying grounded. I used my entire body, vocal sounds and facial expressions to let her know how I was feeling. As this interaction continued, she began making eye contact with me and saying, “Dah, dah, dah” repeatedly. I later learned that she was saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

As our play continued, I glanced around the room at the other children and noticed that she and I were the only ones connecting. All the other orphans appeared to be in their own little worlds, seemingly oblivious to what was happening around them.

She grabbed a baby doll and put it in a stroller and brought it towards me. I was able to say a brief hello to the baby before it was quickly swept away from me. I felt the loss. Then the little girl stood facing me while she rocked the baby forcefully in the stroller. The baby fell out and lay there, alone and neglected on the floor. “Oh, the baby…” I thought. My body filled with sadness and I felt helpless. Just as this feeling began to sink in, the little girl was back in my face with the bubbles, and this time she wiped the bubbles all over me. Slowly a deeper feeling emerged in me, one that superseded my sense of feeling overwhelmed. I was consumed with sadness and began to feel a deep sense of shame and yuck. I again gestured back to her in whatever way I could to let her know how I was feeling, and once again she looked in my eyes and said, “Dah, dah, dah!”

I then noticed that she was starting to calm down and that she was crawling on her hands and knees. She let go of the baby doll and crawled in my direction. When she got close enough she crawled into my lap and like a baby, allowed herself to be held for just a few seconds. I took a deep breath. My sense of feeling sad and overwhelmed started to transform, and I had a brief moment to settle.

She soon gestured for me to stand up, and I complied. She indicated that she wanted to be held so I scooped her up and wrapped her in my arms. As I began to gently rock her I could feel her little body trying to relax. Just as I was starting to settle into this new closeness, she quickly reached to the side, grabbed a large dinosaur off of the shelf and began overwhelming and scaring me again. This was a seminal moment for me, standing in the middle of a Russian orphanage holding a six-year-old girl who so desperately wanted to be a baby and yet was so scared to fully connect. In her world, it was unsafe to become so vulnerable.

I looked into her eyes, took another breath, grounded myself and with every ounce of my being tried to let her know that it was safe enough to relax. We repeated this cycle a few times — we would connect for a brief moment before the dinosaur would come and scare me. My intuition spoke to me quietly, encouraging me to “hum a song.” I began to gently rock her back and forth while humming a tune that I used to hum to my own daughter when she was a baby. As I did so, something magical happened. She gently put her head down in my arms and closed her eyes. I felt the tension in her body give way and we both relaxed, transformed by the song and our connection.

This took place after I had been in Russia for just a few days, surrounded by new sights and sounds, languages and customs. Being a foreigner I had to rely on a translator to meet my communication needs. I had been feeling highly dys-regulated and lost in many ways. Yet in this moment, holding this little orphan girl, I found myself again. I felt my center, I felt my clarity and I was so in-tune with this little being that it was difficult to tell who was grounding whom. Dan Siegel refers to this phenomenon as affect attunement — the deep level of attunement that occurs between a mother and her infant.

As I was soaking in the feeling of safety and closeness, she opened her eyes, grabbed the dinosaur and scared me once again. We continued to do this dance until it was time for me to go. As I began to bid her farewell, she grabbed onto my finger like a tiny child and would not let go. An orphan caregiver came over to help ease the transition. As I was walking away down the hallway, I turned around once more and she was standing in the doorway blowing me kisses. I reciprocated and sent a kiss straight to her heart.

That little girl is held indelibly in my heart, in the space reserved for my most poignant memories. I can only hope that our exchange impacted her as much as it touched me, and that somewhere in her little being she registered what it felt like to be seen, heard and cared for on the most profound level. In 15 short minutes she allowed me to glimpse her inner world, and I let her know that I understood without using spoken language. The healing that occurred for both of us that day was simply and profoundly, beyond words.