by Martha Stark, MD / Faculty, Harvard Medical School


Puppet play will give a child space to act out her unresolved issues and communicate her feelings by using the puppets to represent key players in her dysfunctional family.


Inevitably, if given the space and the freedom to express how she is really feeling, the child will recreate, by way of her play and through displacement, some version of the traumatizing dynamics in her family and the contentious interactions amongst its members. Then, in collaboration with and strongly reinforced by her therapist, the child can construct, again by way of her play and through displacement, an alternative, much happier reality – one that offers a sharp and dramatic contrast to her current dysfunctional family situation.


Indeed, if a child is repeatedly enough given the opportunity to envision and then to enact, session after session, variations on the theme of more harmonious family interactions with less tension and less fighting and if this vision is consistently enough validated by a therapist who delights in the child’s creative play, then the new memories being choreographed by the child will get locked into an updated, more self-affirming, and more hopeful narrative.


In essence, use of puppets enables the child to get distance from the immediacy of her feelings as she dares to re-enact the scenes of trauma, abuse, deprivation, and neglect that are being played out in the context of her family, such that she will more easily be able to tolerate the horror and heartbreak of old bad and be freed up enough to envision and enact the possibility of new good.




Elaine was an adorable, 7-year-old girl with whom I had the pleasure, many years ago, of working off and on for six months. Her mother had brought her to me for treatment because mother was concerned about Elaine’s bullying behavior with some of her classmates in school. Mother reported that Elaine, one of five children, was very quiet at home and rarely said much at all.


What is most memorable for me from my time with Elaine those decades ago was something that happened during one of the sessions in which we were engaged in puppet play.


That particular day, Elaine had bounded into my office and immediately headed for the puppets. She then grabbed from the bin, with obvious excitement and delight, the big red puppet with a very pointed snout and sharp, jagged teeth. She said it was a crocodile and not an alligator because its teeth allowed it to be more aggressive if it wanted to be. She said that I was to take the big gray puppet (which had a little mouth and almost no teeth at all) and that I was to be a bear.


We began to play. I asked her why my bear was gray and not brown. She told me that it didn’t matter and, with a twinkle in her eye, she told me that I should be quiet. Her crocodile then proceeded to attack my bear, and, with gusto, both our puppets went at it, tussling in silence for quite some time!


But suddenly her crocodile made an especially vicious attack on my poor bear and spoke words for the first time – “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”


I do not remember, these years later, how I responded, but what I do remember is that Elaine suddenly turned to me and said, “Is the bear my mom and is my crocodile me?” – to which I, with a twinkle in my eye, responded, “Oh, probably!” – to which she responded “OK!” as her crocodile went back to attacking my bear, resuming its excited, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”


Meanwhile, I was hearing from mother that Elaine was speaking up much more at home and that the teacher was no longer concerned about Elaine’s bullying behavior at school.


At the time, I thought of the work that Elaine and I were doing together as demonstrating the therapeutic power of action-oriented, abreactive play therapy.


But, as a result of my newfound appreciation for the transformational power of therapeutic memory reconsolidation, I would now formulate the work that Elaine and I were doing as also demonstrating the therapeutic impact of creating, within the context of her relationship with me, a startling (and embodied) juxtaposition of re-enacted old bad with envisioned new good.


The old bad experience was one of being invisible, of being without a voice, and of having no place to be heard except at school; the new good experience was one of being seen, of having a voice, and of being able to express, with no ill consequences, her anger (at mother) with conviction and passion.


From this newer perspective, the therapeutic action of this jolting mismatch experience would then be seen as involving the locking in, or reconsolidation, of a new, more positive narrative – one that would reinforce a firmer, more coherent sense of self, others, and the world, such that Elaine would no longer need to be a bully but would be able to delight in being heard without the need to be aggressive about it.