There seems to be an unspoken rule in social work that no fun is allowed. Aside from play therapy for children, everything else is serious business. In some ways I get it. We deal with a lot of serious issues. It isn’t exactly appropriate to crack a joke every time a single parent is about to lose his/her home and children or a young adult is seeking treatment for child sexual abuse. Still, overall, people seek social services/therapy because they want increased happiness, joy, fun.
No one walks in saying, “Please help me feel worse or make my situation even more difficult. I’d like to cry a little more.” Utilizing play, humor, and fun can be extremely useful to ease tension and stress during challenging times.
This can also lead to new and creative insights and solutions that we don’t see when we’re stuck in a rut. Helping a chronically unemployed client find a job might be more effective if it’s turned into an enjoyable and exciting process. We all know that when we enter into something with positive, creative energy, the results are more favorable.
Now I’m not advocating we ignore, minimize, or make light of the serious issues that clients bring in. It’s necessary to acknowledge, process, understand, and accept the past and present but too much focus on problems and the accompanying negative feelings can be detrimental to forward progress.
I’ve worked with numerous adult clients who have had years of social services and therapy beginning in childhood, and are stuck in a cycle of blame and excuses because the primary focus has been on everything terrible that has ever happened and is still happening to them. There was little focus on the future, their desires, and how can they build the motivation to reach those desires.
Yet, if you look at children who have not been scarred by the purported seriousness of life (aka adults) they have nothing stopping them because they are focused only on possibilities. They world is their oyster and their lobster and if they don’t like seafood, their peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They laugh, they play, they joke, and they create wonderful masterpieces. They can be and do anything in their minds, and if a motivated mindset stays intact throughout childhood and into adulthood they become successful, happy, fulfilled adults.
However, many get stuck somewhere, often for quite a few valid reasons. It’s easy to understand why an adult who was seriously abused as a child or shuffled through foster care or juvenile justice system has a hard time laughing, dreaming, and seeing the possibilities anymore. Even so, I truly believe that if social services brought a little more joy to the table they would remember their natural childhood state and eventually embrace its benefits.
The problem is most of us aren’t trained to use humor, play, and fun in a therapeutic sense, especially with adults. I have previous experience with the field of therapeutic recreation so when I officially entered into the field of social work, I was excited to blend the two. Then I encountered a very serious graduate program that was primarily focused on all of the atrocities in our world with little room for discussion of creative solutions.
I also had a quite stoic internship supervisor tell me never to use humor in my therapy sessions. The fun and joy that I began with was slowly squeezed out of me. I figured these highly educated, licensed, and experienced professors and professionals must know better than me what they’re talking about. So I got super serious, but that wasn’t me. Since I’m the only tool I have in working with my clients, it wasn’t helpful to them.
I realized later my supervisor likely meant I shouldn’t use humor unless it was useful to the client in which I fully agree with. However, neither she nor anyone else in my program provided any guidance in that direction. Luckily, I had other role models who used humor and play effortlessly and I rediscovered similar skills I had learned previously or used naturally.
Through some trial and error, I found that many of my clients responded positively to humor and a little playfulness. They more easily let go of some of their life’s negative accumulation and replaced that with life’s possibilities and motivation to move toward their desires. They smiled, they laughed, they were happy to take responsibility for their lives.
Utilizing humor and play can also be beneficial for social service providers, who often suffer from burnout and secondary trauma when dealing with such serious issues on a regular basis. Used carefully and thoughtfully, fun is an important aspect of the therapeutic process for everyone involved and should be implemented more often in social service provision.