There he was, smiling. For the first time in our home, and perhaps for the first time in his life, the little seven year old was smiling. It was a sight that brought a lump to my throat and tears my ears.
Wiping them away, I looked over at my wife, who was emotionally shaken as well, as tears were streaming down her face.
It could only be one thing: Disney Therapy
Michael was placed into foster care when he was 4 years old.
When he arrived at our home late one Thursday night, it was clear right away that this was one child that was terribly “broken,” and who was suffering from high levels of trauma. Unlike the other children who had come to our home from foster care, he did not show signs of fear, and did not cry himself to sleep. Instead, he showed no emotion. He had suffered horrifically from his birth mother, and the trauma was simply an overwhelming one for him.
As a result, little Michael was incredibly withdrawn, and showed no emotion whatsoever. No joy, no sorrow, no anxiety, no surprise, no anger, no curiosity. He was an emotional blank. Michael spent years bouncing from one foster home to another, and no one was able to break though to him. Michael did not know how to to show emotion. So my wife and I decided to take him to Disney World.
On our second day inside the Magic Kingdom, it happened. Michael smiled.
It was on Splash Mountain, a water ride, where he first broke into an infectious smile. Now, this was not just a slight smile, this was a huge grin, as the emotional barriers he had placed within himself were beginning to crack. When he stepped off the ride, he was smiling from ear to ear; a sight that at first I could not believe! It was later in the afternoon when we experienced our next life changing moment, stopping me in my tracks, and unlocking my own floodgate of tears. Michael laughed. He actually laughed out loud; a sound that was a miracle of sorts.
This traumatized and emotionally barren child was laughing like a nine year old boy.
We had stood in line to meet my favorite character: Donald Duck.
As always, the Disney characters make each person feel special, and Donald was no different.
At first, Michael stood at a distance, while my own children hugged Donald.
A moment later, Michael tore from my wife’s hand and ran to embrace Donald Duck, his body shaking with laughter as Donald bent down to embrace him. I let the tears flow down my face freely, as the emotion of the moment quickly swept over me. My wife and I brought our biological and adoptive children with us, and wanted to do something special for Michael. After all, we didn’t want to place him in yet another foster home while we were on vacation.
Yet, both Michael’s smile and laughter were doing something special for my own family, as it opened our hearts in a way that I did not think possible. Michael had found a place where he could be a child and where he could escape his personal traumas that haunted him on a daily basis. I had discovered Disney Therapy.
Throughout the years, we have taken several foster children to Walt Disney World. During these travels, I have been witnesses to many firsts. I have watched children smile for the very first time, children who have been abused in such horrific fashion, and who have suffered unthinkable horrors. I have watched some children laugh for the first time. I have seen children open up their hearts to others with this “Disney Therapy.”
Quite simply, I have been witness to children in foster care discovering that it is okay to be a kid, to laugh and play like others; that it is never too late to be a kid.
This is a gift that I cannot bring to a child myself, despite my many degrees, research, and studies. Disney is known as the “Happiest Place on Earth” for a reason.
Truly, it is a “Magic Kingdom,” and this magic is one that brings joy to our foster children like no other place.
Each time we take our foster children to Disney World, it becomes a sort of Play Therapy for them. This type of therapy has been around since the times of Plato. Play Therapy is a therapeutic technique designed to allow the traumatized child to better cope with their emotional stress or trauma through the expression of emotions and or play.
What better place than Disney World than to take our foster children to not only express their emotions, but to find ways to play, as well.
There are a number of ways we have found for children to engage in this form of therapy and begin to allow them to feel and express themselves. If you want to see your child come to life or come out of his or her shell, take them to a visit with one of their favorite Disney characters.
No matter how old the child is, the pain and trauma they are faced with seems to vanish when hugging Mickey, Cinderella, or Buzz Lightyear.
To be sure, an up close and personal meet and greet with a Disney character is like a dream come true for many our foster children. For all children, meeting a Disney character face to face and in personal conversation is a magical moment, as it allows them to communicate with someone they have only met before in their imagination. For little Michael, the hugs of Donald Duck allowed our little child from foster care the chance to be loved by someone who was not going to harm him; Donald Duck.
More than anything, a foster child wishes one thing and has one desire; to be loved. Foster parents can protect the child from harm, provide a safe and secure home, offer nutritious meals, and open up a doorway of opportunities for foster children, granting them new and exciting experiences that they may never have dreamed of. Yet, with all of this, with all of the wonderful opportunities and safe environments, foster children really crave love the most.
They want to be loved.
After all, every child deserves to be loved. Not only do children deserve love, they need it in order to grow in a healthy fashion. While there are many forms of love, the strongest one, and most important for a foster child, is that of unconditional love. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Cinderella; these character all allow the child to feel unconditional love.
Time after time, I have watched as these Disney characters look my foster children in the eye, take their hands, and make the child feel as if he were a prince himself. No amount of training allows me to give this same feeling to our foster children.
Along with this, my wife and I ensure that the children go on as many thrill rides as possible, including Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted House, Space Mountain, and so forth.
These thrill rides never fail to invoke a smile and a laugh from a child, no matter the trauma they have undergone. For Michael, thrill rides allowed him to scream; scream in delight and in joy.
These peels of delightful emotion gave him the chance to open himself up and unleash some of the pent up grief and fear that had conquered him for so many years, and allowed him to open himself to simply having fun.
And finally, there is no other fireworks show in the world than the Magic Kingdom’s nightly fireworks.
We make sure to take every one of our children every night!
When Tinker Bell flies down from the right hand side of the castle moments into the fireworks display, every child I have immediately breaks out into shouts of joy, pointing at the magical fairy.
The music, Tinker Bell, and the firework display all combine to create a moment of wonder, awe, and joy for anyone watching. For children who have suffered from trauma and abuse, this wonder, awe, and joy only help in allowing the child to heal from their pain as only Disney can; something that cannot be done in the child’s everyday environment.
It is so very important for children in care to find a way to leave behind their pain and trauma; to leave the horrors that they are faced with each morning they wake up. It is vital for children in care to find a way to get the therapy they so dearly need in order to face the future, and survive as an adult. Sadly, many of the children in foster care will never have these moments, and will never receive this therapy. For our family, this Disney Therapy is our way to bring the foster children in our home the opportunity of a life time to escape their pain and traumas, and instead allow them to simply be a child, free from pain.
Our Disney Therapy allows us to provide the opportunity for these children to take the memory of their once in a life time vacation with them for the rest of their life.
Yet, it is this same Disney Therapy that changes the lives of my own family, as well, and makes us stronger. Make no mistake; it will change the lives of both your foster children and your own family, too.
If you need tips or advice on what to do at Disney. Please feel free to contact me. I can tell you, you and your family will have a life changing experience.