In play therapist Cheryl Hulburd's Fernie, British Columbia, office, the 4-year-old picked up the witch and dog hand puppets to re-enact the fights between his mother — a witch hand puppet — and his father — a dog hand puppet.
“You’re not going to get away with this,” the witch said.
“I just want what’s best for our son,” the dog replied.
The puppets couldn't undo the emotional damage from family fights and a long custody battle, but they could help this child make sense of life at the center of a messy divorce. To child therapists like Hulburd, that's their power.
“Kids heal in a play room,” Hulburd said. “You feel safe around a puppet. You can’t communicate when you feel threatened. In order to feel safe, we have fun.”
It’s been 60 years since Jim Henson made his first Kermit the Frog puppet and added a new chapter to a centuries-old art form, helping generations of kids learn everything from their ABCs to emotional intelligence.
Puppets aren’t just for entertainment anymore. They’re important tools in child development and bringing kids back from the void of emotional trauma, Hulburd says.
Working first as a social worker and then as a children’s play therapist with the Canadian Association of Child and Play Therapy, Hulburd has used puppets to help children with all kinds of trauma. But she says despite how much her work helps children, most people don’t know about it.
“Play therapy is so crucial for kids, but most people don’t even know it exists,” Hulburd said. “But there’s nothing like it — it works. It’s magic.”
Trauma is difficult to treat in any patient, but treating a child trauma victim presents unique challenges, said Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist Steven Schlozman.
“My job would be very difficult if I didn’t have toys, especially puppets,” Schlozman said.
An adult’s brain and a child’s brain deal with traumatic events like abuse or a sudden death in similar ways, Schlozman says — whether young or old, a brain that’s experienced a traumatizing event will continue to be troubled by it because the brain doesn’t know how to categorize or “file” the information.
“(When trauma happens) everything shuts down and the reptilian brain kicks in — the part that’s in survival mode and dictates fight or flight,” Hulburd said.
But children younger than 7 or 8 have an even harder time than adults verbalizing their feelings — something that has to happen for trauma to be treated.
“A traumatic narrative is like garbled stories. If you’re having surges of fight or flight feelings as a memory is being laid down, it makes it that much harder to tell the story again,” Schlozman said. “But kids already lack sequencing — they don’t have the ability to tell a cohesive story until about age 8.”
That’s where non-threatening helpers like puppets and other tools like therapy dogs come in — they help the kids relax while working their volatile emotions out in a way that makes sense to them, whether they can put it in words or not.
“Trauma is almost mathematical — it transcends language, and not in a good way,” Schlozman said. “The puppet can get it into words. It moves us into this place where you talk about something that stands in for the thing or event rather than dealing with the thing itself.”
The imitation game
One of the reasons puppets make such effective therapy tools is that they bring kids closer to reality even as they create distance from it. Puppetry creates a kind of double-sided imitation game, Hulburd says — while the kids imitate reality with the puppet, the puppets can imitate behaviors the therapist hopes the kids will adopt.
Hulburd has put this practice to use through her own puppet, Herman the Turtle. Herman has adapted to the needs of countless child patients, Hulburd says, which helps the kids feel that they can identify with him and later, open up. Hulburd says she raised her daughter with the help of a bear puppet named Bear-nice, who would sit at the dinner table and convince Hulburd’s daughter to eat her vegetables.
“He’s shy like some of the kids are at first. He can work through his fear of talking with their help, he can be slow like the kids with ADHD need to learn to be,” Hulburd said. “He’s perfect for therapeutic settings.”
The absorbing nature of puppetry separates it from other forms of play, making it perfect for therapy, says veteran puppeteer and Iowa-based Eulenspeigel Puppet Theatre director Monica Leo. Because puppet play and puppet shows engage so much of the mind and senses, it helps get things out the child may not even know were there.
“Puppetry is the original multimedia. It involves so much of the senses that it takes you outside of yourself and allows you to fade into the background,” Leo said. “It’s compelling because you can not only create your imaginary world, you can invite others into it."
The act of externalizing strong feelings or bad experiences is the crux of treating trauma, Hulburd said, which is perhaps why puppets are most important for children healing from emotional or physical trauma: Puppets can stand in for kids who haven’t yet learned how to stand up for themselves.
“Puppets are very powerful and they’re brave when kids need them to be,” Hulburd said. “And if one puppet isn’t brave, the kid needs a braver puppet.”