In recent years, my counselling practice in primary schools has been marked by an increase in boys who have experienced, or are experiencing, what has come to be known as adverse childhood experiences (ACE), often associated with trauma. At the same time, I have become increasingly aware of the need to make our counselling spaces more welcoming for boys. In this article, I will present how the use of radio-controlled toys (RCTs), and radio-controlled cars, in particular, has become a feature of the therapy I offer, and consider potential benefits of this counselling intervention
It is commonly accepted that interventions to address trauma fall into three overlapping areas: stabilising, through activities that regulate, soothe and ease symptoms of being overwhelmed by stress triggers; processing, in order to make sense and meaning of events and experiences associated with trauma; and integration, which involves moving forwards with a positive sense of identity in a life that is not defined by trauma.1 I have found RCTs useful in all three areas.
Creating a secure base is an important step in helping children feel safe and able to trust other people. It is important to develop a window of tolerance,2 where self-regulation can help keep them relatively calm and enhance their ability to cope with stress. Contracting with boys who have experienced trauma can be difficult, but this is crucial to allow for the creation of a secure frame, a stable and therapeutic boundary around the counsellor and client, within which the work can take place and the client can feel secure. This also enables the counsellor to assess the client’s capacity for perseverance and resilience in therapy and make creative adjustments, to avoid frustration and discouragement.
Setting up an RCT requires screwdrivers and batteries, a bit of fiddling and patience. The counsellor and client need to work together. This is the beginning of contracting the therapeutic relationship and attending to stabilisation. I have found screwdrivers to be an instant hit with young boys; to be entrusted with a sharp object usually handled by adults is immediately appealing. However, it is important to exercise caution, and the use of the screwdriver is something that needs to be carefully negotiated – even when using child-friendly equipment. In therapy, I have one rule – no-one gets hurt – so, initially, I use the screwdriver or abdicate this responsibility to another adult in the school. This inevitably leads to negotiation of our contract and building the groundwork for a secure base. I often receive challenges, such as, ‘Why not? I’m allowed at home!’ and I respond with, ‘I’m not allowed, I need to keep you safe’, or sometimes, ‘We need to find another adult who is allowed to help us’. My intention is to co-create a space of shared responsibility within the school environment, where other helpful adults can be identified. The use of the pronouns ‘I’ or ‘we’ are important, in order to reverse a common script of ‘You are not allowed’. The intention is to establish an empathic connection, which recognises that boys who have challenging behaviour often feel alone and victimised as well as disempowered. As the work progresses and trust is established between us, boys can and do use the screwdrivers, carefully holding and passing them in a safe and conscientious way.
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Most boys can easily place batteries in the toy. However, sometimes they are placed the wrong way round, and this creates differing levels of frustration. Some boys will accept help, some won’t. It’s important to have a spare car set up in case the original one doesn’t work, and to emphasise that any malfunctioning is related to the toy and not the boy’s inability.
Setting up therefore gives the counsellor some useful interventions and measures for assessment and therapeutic connections. It offers the child an opportunity to self-regulate around an activity. As therapy continues and as batteries inevitably run out, re-contracting and re-assessment periodically take place. Eventually, a quick attunement of working together to set up the RCT will take place, with roles of battery placer and screwdriver operator easily and wordlessly interchanged.
The boundaries are established, the relationship is one of working together and the dysregulated child has learned to pause and engage positively in a world of potential, albeit minor, physical challenge and frustration.
Many boys who have experienced or are experiencing trauma have a need to control their environment, so the provision of an RCT is a good choice of medium, which challenges this impulse in a playful way. In driving RCTs, they retain control and can explore various ways in which to exert it. In controlling speed, boys often learn to control breathing and behaviour. They might run a car out of the school gates and lose the car, but they are more likely to test this boundary and then run the car back in again. The car may even become a transitional object between counselling and learning, and be driven back to class, which becomes another area for contracting and stabilising.
Processing trauma is challenging for children, who may not have the cognitive ability to understand what has happened or is happening to them. Asking them to tell their story in words may be retraumatising. In the case of developmental trauma, they may never remember early infant experiences. Talking therapy can be difficult.
However, nonverbal metaphor or symbolic play provide a medium of self-expression to children.3 RCTs offer the opportunity to represent their internal world in an active and concrete manner. Play in therapy offers an opportunity for safe processing of difficult events and experiences. It also offers the chance to tell narratives that have helped young people survive.
My own approach to play in therapy has been influenced by a Rogerian perspective and narrative therapy. I believe in the potential of stories to enable resilience and growth. RCTs can provide a means to journey into the child’s inner world, with the car itself becoming a representation of the child’s concept of self. Each RCT has the potential to overcome inevitable crashes and obstacles on its journey, in the same way that the individual has the potential to overcome challenges in their process towards Rogerian growth and development.
Young boys who cannot express feelings in words may find it easier to project them onto the RCT. The car can feel cold, trapped, abandoned or free. A fictitious driver can feel frightened, happy or proud. Feelings that cannot be named and faced can be rediscovered in an imaginative world that has a real presence in the environment the car inhabits. In some ways, the car becomes the container for difficult emotions, which can also be transformed or diluted into less painful emotions, with empathic reflections from the counsellor. Intriguingly, Bion, who experienced trauma as a tank driver in WWI, was interested in how the unconscious projection of traumatic emotions could assist with helping the psyche to survive trauma.4 This process might help the child with (what Bion called) containment; and they can be helped to understand and manage emotions through the active, containing and transforming experience of driving.
RCTs might also help boys develop resilience, as they express a narrative of overcoming problems and increasing their confidence through play. The movement of the cars takes children away from the freeze position of trauma, allowing for the creation of a new
sense of safety, where they can move freely and become more securely rooted, which is a healing experience. At the end of each session, I ask the child, ‘What did you learn about life today?’ and ‘What did you learn about yourself?’ I am often surprised by their responses, which can include things like:
I learned that life is like a car. You can go backwards but it’s easier to go forwards.
I learned that there’s always obstacles, but you can find a way round them.
I learned that I can go out of control like the car sometimes.
This car can go faster than anyone expects. He has been through mud and is now looking for a puddle to get clean.
This process can be further illustrated with a fictitious case study, drawing on Tolkein’s narrative approach in play in therapy. A key feature of counselling narratives related to boys has been the role played by the hero in the male psyche and the transformation of heroes that emerges from hardship and even potential destruction.5 Tolkein’s narrative structure offers three stages in story development, which offer a resilient process for working with trauma narratives.6 The stages are recovery, escapism and consolation. Recovery is when taken-for-granted thoughts and feelings are recovered by another, who offers a different perspective. Escapism is when imaginative responses allow different events and feelings to be created. Consolation is the happy ending that can only be achieved through narrowly avoiding tragedy – an element which seems important to acknowledge in trauma work. These three narrative stages facilitate the counselling phases of stabilising, processing and integration.
Interventions for trauma have been considered within a neuroscientific discourse. Controlling RCTs mimics some of the processes involved in gaming, but also those involved in driving, which can be helpful for a brain impacted by trauma.7 Research into the benefits of gaming and driving has shown increases in hippocampal volume, an area of the brain adversely affected by trauma. This can improve cognitive functioning, memory, spatial navigation and reasoning and also correlates with reductions in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.8 For example, driving RCTs might improve self-control, visual processing, attention and memory – all areas that can be problematic for a boy who has experienced trauma. The balancing of cortisol is also important in the treatment of trauma.9 A balanced energy is needed to operate RCTs, so it’s important to note the level of excitement boys display and dispel in their play. I provide a reflective, running commentary, or tracking, of how I perceive this balance being maintained in the play.
Rogers claimed that it was important to identify elements of the environment that could help children, rather than focus on those that could not. The counselling room can easily be adapted for RCTs, even if it’s small: ‘landscapes’ can be created out of books, chairs and sand trays. If you have access to outside space, then there is no end to the possibilities for an RCT to inhabit. In my experience, introducing RCTs into the counselling room, especially with boys who have experienced trauma, provides the tools for a valuable road trip to recovery.
1 Hermann J. Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books; 2015.
2 Siegel D. The developing mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (third edition). London: Guilford Press; 2015.
3 Chesley GL, Gillett DA, Wagner WG. Verbal and nonverbal metaphor with children in counselling. Journal of Counseling and Development 2008; 86(4): 399–411.
4 Szykierski D. The traumatic roots of containment: the evolution of Bion’s metapsychology. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 2010; 79(4): 935–968.
5 Bazzano M. Sons of our fathers. Therapy Today 2019; 20(9): 23–27.
6 Tolkein JR. On fairy-stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1947.
7 Butler O, Herr K, Willmund G, Gallinat J, Kühn S, Zimmermann P. Trauma, treatment and Tetris: video gaming increases hippocampal volume in male patients with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience 2020 ; 45(4): 279–87.
8 Lappi O. The racer’s brain – how domain expertise is reflected in the neural substrates of driving. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2015; 9: 635.
9 O’Connor DB, Green JA, Ferguson E, O’Carroll RE, O’Connor RC. Effects of childhood trauma on cortisol levels in suicide attempters and ideators. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2018; 88: 9–16.