By Guest Author Sarah Scott Dooling, LCSW, RPT-S
In the public education and social work industries, we have created a culture that seems to stipulate that the more we work, the better we are. The harder we work the more validated we will be. If we put work first and ourselves second (or third, or fourth…), we can prove ourselves as worthy and valuable employees. We encourage our clients and students to take care of themselves and to set boundaries; yet we work twelve hours a day, and then when we get home we work a little more. In supervision I often observe clinicians trading reasons why they don’t eat lunch or take a break during the day. Being a school-based play therapist can be incredibly rewarding IF we know how to deal with the stress that comes along with the nature of the job.
I once had a director who would say in a lighthearted way, “You aren’t allowed to be sick!” Although I knew she was joking, somehow I internalized that message. To this day I feel conflicted when I feel sick and cannot go to work.
Being a school-based play therapist means we often take care of everyone else, teach about self-care to others and yet we deny ourselves that very same care and concern. We are affected by the trauma of others. We join our child clients in the trenches during some of their darkest experiences.
Our work days are often spent hearing, witnessing and absorbing tragedies and traumas. This can leave us feeling intensely depleted. We sometimes feel so exhausted from our work day that it becomes challenging to find the energy needed in the evenings and on the weekends to attend to our homes, families and personal needs. We love the work of providing play therapy in school settings but we are at high risk of burn-out and compassion fatigue. We need some skills not only for surviving but also for thriving as school-based play therapists.
The #1 Survival Skill You Need as a School-based Play Therapist. . .
Find a Debriefing Partner.
Relatively early on in my career, I began to understand that most people have a window of tolerance for traumatic stories, and that window doesn’t open very far. In the early stages of my work, this reality caused me a great deal of frustration and disappointment. This realization significantly increased my feelings of isolation; I needed to process what I saw and heard each day.
I discussed the situation with a colleague of mine. She helped me explore the idea that perhaps it was a good thing that most people had a window that didn’t open up as much as mine. The world can already feel like a sad and scary place. I realized I needed to find a way to debrief with someone . I needed to process and consult about my field experiences.
Unfortunately, during supervision, I would try to find ways to discuss and explore my stress related to my experiences (sadness related to cases, panic related to not feeling qualified enough, existential blues related to wondering whether or not the work we do ever really matters). But I found myself nervous at the thought of being perceived by my supervisor as overly stressed or self-conscious because my clinical supervisor was also my administrative supervisor.
During my third year in that position, I began working on a project with a colleague with whom I quickly developed a friendship that continues to be a huge support to me personally and professionally. She was a social worker in a school with a similar demographic. We discovered that we shared a remarkably similar lens when it came to seeing the students, families, and teachers with whom we worked. We also learned that we both had a complicated emotional experience with our job. We both realized that the job both brought us great joy while also causing intense distress.
In an attempt to neutralize some of the distress, we sought ways to support each other during the school day. At the start of the school year, we set a goal of aiming for some type of contact with each other every day while at work (online chat, phone call, email, text message).
We also had a code phrase to let the other one know when our stress level was peaking. If I received a text message saying “it’s one of those days,” I would know that it was important for her that we connect on our respective rides home from work that evening.
Whether or not we actually connected began to matter less than the act of reaching out to someone like-minded and knowing she would also reach out to me. I began to feel significantly less isolated at work. And I noticed that I didn’t feel that same need to bring work home with me by trying to share stories from the day.
I encourage you to consider the importance of debriefing with a colleague who is like-minded regularly. Find a really good supervisor who can support you as the whole person of the therapist you are. Find a fellow school-based play therapist you can connect with and exchange support often. Make a commitment. This will serve as a powerful self care and survival skill as a school-based play therapist.
Sarah Scott Dooling, LCSW, RPT-S is a psychotherapist and clinical social worker specializing in play therapy. Sarah works in private practice in San Diego, CA, where she helps students feel safe and ready to learn. She also facilitates creative and interactive professional development workshops for clinicians and educators. You can learn more about Sarah at www.sarahscottdooling.com