I have noticed, for quite awhile actually, a phenomena that I call the Playground Revisited. When you think of the word playground, what does it conjure up in your mind? In mine, I recall skinned knees on the blacktop – my elementary school was bereft of grass to run on. I recall being picked for teams of Red Rover or Capture the Flag. I have visions of patting heads in Duck, Duck Goose. I recall running away from the boys that would chase the girls with worms or bugs. But I also recall the times that I wasn’t picked for a team, or teased by the boys. I can remember whispers, looks, laughter, and relief when the ring of a bell would end recess. I can also remember moments of fear, some of anxiety, some of envy and some of hurt, with teasing and taunts mixed in.
This was all many years ago, but powerfully recalled moments when jarred by conversation, a scene in a movie, a paragraph in a book, or watching the interaction of children. My guess would be that most of us are not pining away for a return to the days I have described, whether they were fabulous or not. I suspect too, that most of us are happy to tuck our playground memories far away, until needed, to empathize with the stories of children we know. I think that as adults there is an expectation that we move beyond the playground experiences, that we launch into adulthood with the belief that “we are done with that”, “it was child’s play”, and “it was in the past”. But is that really the case?
Social networking has enabled us to interact on a completely different level with individuals across the world or in our own backyard in an intimate way. Depending on the site, the interaction is topical, and focused on sharing what used to be rather mundane tidbits about our lives. It has enabled us to share experiences, photos, and revolutions. Social media has created bridges between organ donors and those in need. It has reunited mothers and sons. It has garnered support for political candidates, and it has fostered generosity in times of crisis. It also reminds us we are still, in every way, human and that communication regardless of its form, can take us back to the playgrounds of our lives.
I have had a client who recently spoke about the breakup of a serious relationship, where he mentioned, “she wrote it on my wall”. Or another client who shared, “He put up pictures of his new girlfriend – just 2 days after we broke up”. “My boss saw the pictures I posted from the party and asked me what I was doing”. “I found out he was arrested for a DUI”. Or – he’s married!!!!, I saw pictures of his wife and daughter”, “I’m so aggravated – they haven’t talked to me in months and now they are posting that I won’t share the things my mother left behind”. “I got so worried because he wrote that he “going away where no one could find him”. These comments (altered to protect the source) are from clients I see, all adults, ranging in age from 19 through 73.
These examples are a lot like the dump and run – of the real playground – throw a worm and run away. On the real playground, you heard the scream of the wormed, you saw their grimace, and you probably got in trouble from the playground monitor or the principal. However, social media lacks the ability to provide a warning (the wormer running toward the wormee), along with the visual feedback of body language (the grimace), and an opportunity to hear a reaction (the scream) all in real time. In addition, it is written and exists somewhere, forever. Even if you delete or block the offensive post – every time you log on, the “place” that it occurred is still there, quite similar to having to go out to recess every day – even when you would do anything to avoid being a target on the playground.
Therefore, when clients share that they feel ambushed by a post, teased, bullied, or hurt, we talk not only about the problem, but also about the way it was communicated. Even though the “event” is not on the playground – it can bring back many of the same feelings – of powerlessness, shame, embarrassment, and anger. My role is to help clients realize that they are not powerless – that they have the ability and the right to communicate assertively. That they have the right to establish boundaries, develop, and maintain healthy relationships regardless of where they take place. Although your client may have memories of the playground of the past, you can help them manage the “playground revisited” of today.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.