It seems that everyone is talking about how stressed kids are these days. We talk about their over scheduled days and the pressure to take on a rigorous workload and still perform well. We know that kids and teens need to process all this stress in a safe way, yet there remains a stigma regarding caring for our mental health. We get exercise for our hearts, take vitamins and eat healthy food, why not check in with a professional about our emotions and those of our kids as well?
Cary Hamilton at OlympiaTherapy is one of our country’s most well-known registered play therapists and her practice is right here in Thurston County. She is working hard to try and change that stigma by providing mental health services throughout our community. Her mission through OlympiaTherapy is to create happy families via play therapy. “Don’t wait until your children are depressed and anxious to get professional help,” Hamilton says. A therapist can help process emotions and difficult life circumstances before they cause a crisis.
Hamilton was a student at Willamette University in Oregon and planning to attend medical school when she went to Ecuador for a year-long study abroad program. She worked with children in an orphanage and after that experience, she knew that she wanted to work with children. After graduating from Willamette with a degree in Sociology, she attended George Fox University.
It was at George Fox that she studied under Dr. Daniel Sweeney at the Northwest Center for Play Therapy Studies who is a well authored and former president of the Assoc. for Play Therapy. According to the Association for Play Therapy, toys can take on symbolic meaning where words may fail. “A child may not want to talk, and instead the trauma may come out in aggressive behavior,” says Dr. Sweeney.
During her studies, Hamilton worked at the Christie School in Portland, OR. The Christie School is a residential treatment home is for kids ages six to 18 who have been unable to thrive in a foster home. These children have often been abandoned more than once and are dealing with serious trauma. The program also helps kids who are going to age out of the foster system to learn the skills they will need to survive on their own.
Hamilton was so moved by the work of Dr. Sweeney and belief in the power of play to heal that she opened the Antioch Center for Play Therapy at Antioch University in Seattle. “Empowering counselors to find the connection between play and the therapeutic impact it can have on children working through issues of trauma, bullying or depression and a necessary tool to a clinician’s toolkit,” explains Hamilton. “Toys are their words and the play is their story.”
Olympia Therapy opened in 2011. Hamilton wanted to work with like-minded people who shared her desire to provide a wide spectrum of mental health services in a safe and non-judgmental environment to the community. There are now a total of eight therapists, both male and female, to provide care for everyone from children and their families to teens, as well as adult and marital counseling. In addition to these practitioners, they also provide internships to students pursuing their master’s degrees and still needing clinical or internship hours to complete their degree. Often these students can provide therapy at a lower cost or even pro-bono in some cases so that everyone’s needs can be met.
The therapy rooms are bright and cheery with toys clearly visible and arranged with intention. Play Therapy is a science-based modality that is informed by current nuero science. “We know that the cognitive part of the brain that defines consequential thinking isn’t formed under the age of 10,” shares Hamilton. In other words, when a 7-year-old says they don’t know why they pulled all the cans off the shelves or painted the dog, they truly don’t understand why they did it. Much perceived “bad behavior” is really a lack of impulse control by a less than fully formed brain.
Hamilton’s expertise makes her a sought after speaker all over the world. Most recently she was in Beijing, China teaching parents and educators about the importance of play. “We all as parents need to remember how to play,” says Hamilton. Many children today are over-scheduled and not given enough opportunity for free play. Children need to experience boredom to engage in the process of curiosity. The development of the brain and curiosity occurs through play.
“When kids don’t know what to do, when they are bored, it is a sign of stress,” explains Hamilton. “As parents, we have taken away risk from our children. Children need natural consequences of their actions in order to learn how to problem solve. We can be there while they solve the problem, but we can’t solve all the problems for them,” she adds. Parenting today is increasingly difficult yet, this can improve with informed knowledge of how a child’s brain develops and have more realistic expectations.
Hamilton and her husband Steve, a teacher at Capital High School, have two children of their own, a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. They love to travel with their kids and explore the natural world. Weekends are spent seeking out spontaneous adventures and teaching their children to be curious about the world they live in.
Olympia Therapy is a member of the Leadership Circle at the Hands On Children’s Museum where Hamilton will soon be teaching classes to the staff on topics such as how to deal with sensory issues in children and effective communication with children. Olympia Therapy is currently accepting new patients and accepts almost all insurance plans.
Hamilton hopes to offer trainings for parents on issues such as sibling rivalry, stressed-out teens and improving family relations all through the lens of play. If you would be interested in a parent support group contact OlympiaTherapy at 360-357-2370.