Every few months, I dream I can fly like Superman. I’m way up high, soaring through the clouds, looking down at a real life Google map, free from the constraints of my life as a mortal. The idea of possessing a super power appeals to many: to be faster than a speeding bullet… more powerful than a locomotive… able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Hence the eternal success of superhero movies.
I see this dream manifest itself several times a week in my play therapy room, where superhero play is quite common.
Imagine a four year old boy who has been removed from the care of his parents. He witnessed his father beat up his mother in a drunken rage many nights. His mother, numbed and emotionally unavailable, the victim of a heroin addiction. The child is in foster care, living with a strange family, and he’s just started a new preschool. He is forced to attend court ordered visits with his father (mom is currently in jail for theft) regardless of whether or not the presence of his dad terrifies him.
The little boy has no control over his life, or the adults he relies on to care for him. He feels helpless, and unsafe. This creates an anxiety that affects virtually every aspect of his functioning, from his need to control others through physical aggression, to an inability to sit and pay attention for more than a minute in school.
He enters the playroom, puts on a Superman cape. And he is STRONG. He defeats me, “the bad guy,” countless times in the 45 minute session. This is a highly corrective emotional experience, and the superhero play is a theme that will emerge, and be repeated, ritualistically, every week, for months.
When he leaves my office, his body language is different. He sits up straight, the limpness in his posture replaced with confidence. He is empowered by the renewed sense of control he feels. His learned fear of adult males begins to fade, replaced with an increasing trust: a leap of faith many of us could learn from.
As his perceived helplessness diminishes, his behavior gradually improves. He is hitting his peers, and teachers, less often. He begins to sit for story time without the need to be removed from the circle. He begins paying attention during structured learning times. His sleep has improved, and he is no longer having bathroom accidents. He smiles more than ever.
The lack of control over his life remains unchanged. But his ability to cope, has.
He is a real life Superhero.