Working With Aboriginal People Using Group Theraplay and Sociodrama

Published in The Theraplay Newsletter, Summer 2000

I have worked now with different Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and find that Theraplay®, with adaptations to fit local cultural patterns, is a very helpful approach, especially when combined with psychodrama in a community setting.

There is currently much political and social concern in Australia around the issue of the “stolen generation,” the many thousands of Aboriginal children taken from their families and placed in foster or institutional care in the name of helping them grow up to be responsible citizens. Tales are common of parents returning home from a day’s work to find all their children taken away, only their footprints remaining. Although some children were taken into foster care, the majority were placed in institutions. When I was in my twenties, I worked in such an institution. One of the white foster care workers fell in love with one of the Aboriginal babies. She desperately wanted to adopt him, but was not allowed to do so and it was suggested she leave because she had formed an undue attachment to the child.

Apart from the resulting deep-seated trauma for Aboriginal people, this benighted policy has also left a whole generation with little sense of how to parent their children. Tribal Aboriginals brought up their children to fit a hunter-gatherer society where individuality and resourcefulness rather than obedience were crucial to survival. Small groups of 2-3 hunters need to be able to explore and make decisions independently. This is in contrast to White Western ways of bringing up children which fit within an agricultural society, and where obedience and deference to authority are important (Kearins, nd). Child-rearing practices are always slow to change when the structure of a society changes. This, along with their experience of institutional child rearing means that Aboriginal people now struggle to parent across the demands of two quite different cultures – white institutions and the remnants of their own.

Alcohol and other drugs are much overused, partly as a way of dealing with the trauma they experienced and also because there were no rituals in traditional Aboriginal culture to assist in the regulation of alcohol. Many Aboriginal families live in poverty. There is a high rate of teenage pregnancy and often I saw young parents spending the day sitting drunk in large family groups on a town footpath while the children ran around unsupervised.

In the traditional Aboriginal culture of many Western Australian tribes it is the grandmother who is the disciplinarian. As part of the ‘Stolen Generation’, the grandparents in my groups had all been raised in institutions. A few however did not drink and had worked hard to become functional – a tremendous achievement! Their own children (the parents in my groups) had been raised by them as best they could, but their experiences of trauma and lack of a strong family base of their own meant that parenting was a struggle.

Traditionally an Aboriginal parent’s job involves letting children learn for themselves, even in relation to danger (fire, water). Even very young children will explore 2-3 km from home. This might look to an outsider like neglecting them, although it isn’t. The child learns by observation rather than verbal instruction, so seldom listens to adults and relies more on nonverbal communication.

Since Aboriginal parenting traditions strongly value trial and error learning, they do not provide the kind of structure that white parents value. The mothers will watch carefully if a child attempts something risky, but will not fuss over them if they get hurt. They seldom intervene if a child is making mischief, preferring them to learn by consequences. For example, if the children are playing chasey or fighting in front of a shop, an Aboriginal mother will often yell or swear at them from time to time but make no real effort to stop them. (This is also because the mothers seem tired a lot of the time.) Because of their mischievous behavior Aboriginal children are often treated by whites with suspicion. Indeed, some young Aboriginal children take sport in darting undetected into a shop and taking something out. Some parents may even condone this. For instance on a number of occasions I saw mothers chastise their child for thieving while laughing at their antics and asking to see what they had taken.

In the Aboriginal kinship system, most kin are “cousins” and, therefore, one grandmother may in fact have a very large number of children for whom she is responsible. Traditionally the grandfather is seldom involved in the daily care of the child. In this tribal group males only became involved with the boy once he entered puberty and went through the traditional tribal rites of passage. However, many boys now refuse to be initiated, preferring instead to adopt “white man’s ways,” including Nike shoes and other symbols of white prosperity. This leaves the tribal elders and grandfathers disenfranchised and with no way of passing on the tribal secrets. Overall this is a culture in crisis.

In the dry season of last year I worked with the tribal people at Mowanjum, a primarily Aboriginal outback community, twenty kilometers out of Derby over dusty gravel roads. The building I worked in was fairly primitive with worn linoleum on the floor. There was a small table and a few sagging lounge chairs, whiteboards and not much else.

I was employed by the community to help the young mothers (no fathers were in evidence) and their young children develop personal and social skills as well as parenting skills. I ran trauma resolution groups for the mums and social skills training. These sessions employed a mix of methods including drawing, role-playing and Group Theraplay®. For example, one morning the young women asked for assertiveness training to help them deal with the police, school, and hospital systems (with which they said they were in frequent conflict) and also with their menfolk. Their children (about 8 of them, mostly 2-4 year olds) were in the room with them. The children would not leave because their grandmother was there as well. Each tended to cling to his or her mother and cry if she got out of her chair, looking up at me with big terrified brown eyes. They were passive however, so they would just stand and cry helplessly rather than following her if she left the room.

On my second day there, a handsome Aboriginal male visitor happened to come into the building on business and walked into our group by mistake. In Aboriginal culture, men do not come in when there is “women’s business”, but I asked for the women’s permission to include him in our role-play. He played the part of a “difficult” male, and played it with flair, much to the delight of the young women, who hooted with laughter at his antics. However, it was far too realistic for the children, who started to cry, and the young mothers started to get angry and impatient with them. So I was presented with a perfect opportunity to do Group Theraplay, first with the children and then their mothers using a range of fun activities. Great favorites were lotioning of feet, footprints, hiding M&Ms, bubble blowing and blowing cotton balls under each other’s armpits. Feather blowing competitions were popular and got lots of giggles. Over time we developed all sorts of variants. From then on every day they requested “them games you play”, and my only difficulty was to make sure that these very deprived young women didn’t take over the activities from their children. Nurturing activities were very popular, especially feeding and hand massage, but they wanted the grandmother and me to nurture them, and resisted nurturing their children. I also had to make sure that I was evenhanded with the time that I gave each one, or they would get cross and sulk. It was hard for them to get used to playing with their children, and especially hard for them to get the hang of Structuring activities. They refused to play”(Grand) mother May I?” “Alphabet”, or “Red Light­Green Light.” This was partly because they are adult-structured, rule-following, auditory games which don’t fit with the culture, and they are also “white” games. However “Kim’s Game” was popular because it requires visual memory at which they are adept (Kearins, undated).

So when we added imaginary and more culturally acceptable details, even ‘whitey’ games were popular. If the game mentioned wildlife, e.g. Hop like a kangaroo, it worked well and these kids were adept! They loved building a tower of pillows and having to wait for the all clear sign before they could jump and not be swallowed by an imaginary crocodile. We eventually developed a whole lot of stories about people going walkabout and having to consult the spirits of Dreamtime before they could take the next step. They loved this and became very creative. I had to get the grandmother to give the orders for it to really work, so I needed to know when to defer to her. Fortunately I have two Aboriginal foster brothers (one of whom became my ‘blood brother’) and have a special interest in Aboriginal culture, so I had learned some of the ‘rules’, at least for the Noongar tribe.

One such ‘rule’ is eye contact. Since Theraplay mimics the early gaze behavior which bonds a child and their parent, eye contact games are an integral part of this treatment. These are also an important means by which right hemisphere functioning is ‘downloaded’ from adult to child (Schore, 1996). Yet gaze aversion characterizes Aboriginal interaction with whites – and I am after all a whitey. So playful games such as ‘catch me peeking at you’ and Straight Face Challenge (keeping a straight face while the other person makes funny faces at you) were chosen, and these worked well. The children are very attentive also to gesture, posture and expression, so any games involving these were ‘spot on’.

Overall, far too much happened for me to relay it all. But I noticed that the children overtime became much less clingy, much more confident, and the young mothers were happier, more relaxed, and more nurturing. I even noticed them starting to set some limits for their children which would help the children be more accepted into the majority culture. It is only a start, but the results were inspiring. The community was also appreciative and have asked me to come back. It was a great experience and one which changed me more than them!

Kearins, J (undated) Child-rearing Practices in Australia: variation with life style, Education Department of Western Australia 34074-1.

Schore, Allan N (1996) The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8(1), 59-87

Jernberg, A. (1979) Theraplay, Jossey Bass.