The Power of Child’s Play: Fostering Empathy and Connection


by Dr. Amy Sosa

Children play. That is a fact of life. Have you ever waited in a line while your little ones find something to occupy their minds? They may play peekaboo with a neighbor, smile at a stranger, or grab the closest object to them and explore it with unbounding curiosity. Play is critical to child development because it teaches children how to navigate the world.  Specifically, child’s play centers around one of two themes: power and connection.  

When people think of power, they often think of authority over someone or something else. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, power is defined as“the ability to act or produce an effect” or “the possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” When children engage in imaginative play of power, they often possess “superpowers” to destroy bad people or get rid of scary creatures. Ironically, they use violence to feel safe. This egocentric activity fulfills children’s needs to feel invincible and powerful; however, it negates the experience of the other person.  

When people think of connection, they think of forming strong bonds with one another.Merriam-Webster defines connection as“a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.” Children want to connect with one another because all human beings have an innate need to feel like they belong and that they are loved and valued. Oftentimes, however, children’s toys centered on connection elicit only nurturance and negate feelings of value and importance.  

Moreover, children’s toys are often gender split, with girls’ toys providing lessons innurturance and boys’ toys providing lessons in destruction. This is dangerous because power becomes equated with destruction/boys and nurturance becomes equated with connection/girls. Luckily, children give us many opportunities to provide teachable moments.  

Below are three steps you can take to provide teachable moments to your children and the children in your community:   

    1. Teach children empathy when they are engaging in play that exhibits destructive power. For example, if a child is pretending to be Spiderman through shooting webs to catch the “bad guys,” guide your child’s play through asking, “What do you want to teach the people you are catching?” By asking this simple question, you are showing your child that (s)he has influence through teaching others. This also fosters problem-solving skills and connection/understanding, which is the foundation of empathy.
    2. Teach children emotional identification and expression through the use of a Feelings Chart. A page depicting expressions of several emotions (such as angry, sad, happy, embarrassed, worried, scared, hurt) provides as easy tool for children to identify their emotional states. Create the chart together and discuss examples of ways you express various emotions. Then, throughout the day, show children the chart and ask them to point to how they are feeling. You can then provide two to three options of ways to express such emotions (such as screaming into a pillow, crying, drawing, laughing, etc.) based on the emotion they identified. Up the empathy ante by asking your children how they think you are feeling in certain situations. Try the same with characters in movies and books.
    3. Read inclusive children’s books. Children love getting lost in stories. Thus, it is important for children to recognize similarities and differences in order to cultivate connection, empathy, and influence. Have a diverse collection of books that include same-sex couples, biracial couples, as well as children of all skin tones, languages, and nationalities. This teaches recognition of similarities and acceptance of differences, laying the seeds for empathic understanding.

Gatewell Therapy Center offers individual, family, and group therapy to children, adolescents, and adults.

Exposure Therapy (Spider Version)


That’s me, holding a tarantula at a wildlife rescue center.

I wasn’t always such a spider lover. In fact, I was afraid of them as a child and did my best to avoid them as an adult.

But my current home seems to be a sanctuary for our eight-legged friends. For a long period of time, my bathroom housed three spiders. Instead of escorting them outside, as I usually do, I decided to keep them around.

Exposure therapy*, a type of behavioral therapy, is based on the premise that if you’re afraid of something – even phobic – the best way to conquer your fear is to face it head on. Scared of flying? Book frequent air travel. Afraid of talking to strangers? Set up situations in which you do just that. Wary of spiders? Shower with them daily.

As time progresses, with exposure to the feared stimuli (in my case, spiders), the fear diminishes. If it’s too overwhelming to face the fear at first, baby steps might work – setting up some gradual exposures (e.g., inching toward the spider in progressive amounts) and noticing what happens with the fear over time.

And it worked. After some time, I wasn’t eyeballing them each time I entered my bathroom or inching away from their frequent web descents. When one spider went missing, I worried for its safety.

And then a few months later, I had the opportunity to hold the spideriest of spiders, a tarantula. I wasn’t exactly at ease holding my fuzzy friend  – and I certainly wouldn’t want this one living with me –  but my close encounter with this hairy creature was made 100% possible by exposure work.

*Gatewell Therapy Center offers exposure therapy for various phobias, OCD, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, and other related conditions. Contact us to learn more about this treatment.

Shattering the Political Blank Screen


As a therapist-in-training, I was taught to keep my cards close to my chest. Many of my mentors advocated for minimal personal disclosure, suggesting that revealing this type of information could dilute the therapeutic relationship. They instead recommended a neutral stance, a maintenance of what therapists call the “blank screen.”

But, I’m going to shatter that blank screen right now.

I voted for Hillary. And it’s important for my patients to know that I did.

Let me tell you a little bit about my clientele. . . . I see a wide range of individuals and have over the years. Many are women, some of them mothers. A number of them are men and women of color. Many, especially in Miami, where I now practice, are of Latin-American descent. Some are first-generation immigrants, having come to this country as young children or adolescents. An additional, fairly large percentage are members of the LGBTQ community. Some have married same-sex partners. A small portion of my patients have physical disabilities. Many of my patients have experienced sexual assault and trauma as children or as adults. A large percentage of my practice is comprised of individuals who have suffered from serious mental illness, disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, severe substance misuse, and other conditions that have required access to affordable and ongoing mental health treatment.

Almost all of them will be deeply impacted by the results of last night’s election. At stake are their marriages and families, their health insurance and access to treatment, their recovery, and their lives.

There is no way I can support someone on my couch but not out in the world. I can’t offer empathy and compassion devoid of my beliefs and actions outside of the room. I’ve worked for over 15 years helping people to live more authentic lives, and I’d better be sure I’m doing the same.

So, as the dust settles on this election, my patients can know that, regardless of any personal preferences I might have had about any of the candidates, I did my best to do right by them. They can know that I will continue to support them both as a therapist and as a citizen, and that our joint effort toward a brighter, safer, and more inclusive democracy gathers strength and momentum even, and especially, in the shadows.





New Year, New Insurance Plan? Gatewell’s Primer on Finding the Health Insurance That’s Right for You


It’s that time of year again – time for open enrollment in the health insurance world. Are you confused by all the terms and choices? Gatewell finds all of the options overwhelming, and we’re in the business!  So, we’ve compiled this guide to help you sort out some of the key decisions associated with choosing a plan.

Premium: This is the monthly payment that you’ll pay to the insurance company, regardless of services rendered. If your insurance is through your employer, often the premium is deducted from your paycheck. Premiums can range from nearly nothing (in a company plan, since the employer will subsidize) to thousands of dollars (in an individual/family plan). Typically, the higher your premium, the less you’ll pay for the items below.

Deductible: This is the amount you are responsible for before your insurance starts kicking in for health expenses. Some plans have no deductible (or at least no deductible for some or many services), while others can have deductibles in the thousands. If this is the case, you will have to pay that amount out-of-pocket before your insurance plan starts paying for services. Generally speaking, the lower the deductible, the better.

Copays/Coinsurance: This is the amount you are responsible for at each doctor’s visit/for each service. Copays might range from $10 to hundreds, as a percentage of the service (higher for surgeries, hospitalizations, etc.). Typically, plans that have lower copays have higher premiums.

Out-of-Pocket Maximum: This is the amount that you are responsible for in total (not including premiums) before your financial portion is complete. Once you meet your out-of-pocket max (usually a number in the thousands), your insurance will pay 100% of medically necessary services. You might still be responsible for services with out-of-network providers, and you’ll still be responsible for services that aren’t covered by your plan.

Are you someone who rarely seeks out medical care? It might make more sense for you to choose a lower premium plan with a higher deductible or higher copays/coinsurance. If, on the other hand, you have a number of specialist providers already at your service, you might be better off paying more up front (a higher premium) so that your deductible and responsibility per encounter are lower. You might also opt for a plan that has a lower out-of-pocket max if you typically spend a lot on medical expenses and want a lower cap (so that the insurance company will start covering more completely earlier on).

Are there typical medical expenses that you incur (or imagine you’ll incur this year)? You might want to do a side-by-side of plans you’re considering. For instance, if you’re prone to accidents, you might want to consider a plan that doesn’t charge a hefty ER/urgent care copay. Or, if you think that you might need residential psychiatric care, see what the different plans you are considering offer in terms of treatment at this level of care. Keep in mind, it’s likely you’ll also need an authorization from an insurance company to embark on this kind of covered treatment and that often, insurance companies will cut coverage when they see fit.

If this isn’t confusing enough, you might have options of different insurance companies to explore (via an employer) or on your own. Any individual who does not have access to insurance through the workplace can purchase insurance individually (just hop on the insurance company website and see if they have individual plans in your location). You might even qualify for a subsidy (a reduction in monthly premium), based on income, through the Affordable Care Act.

It’s also a good idea, before making an appointment with any healthcare provider, to know what expenses you will incur. Make sure you’re aware of your deductible and copay/cosinsurance going into the appointment. Find out if the provider is in-network or out-of-network on your plan (you can typically do this by performing a doc search on your insurance company website, though you’ll want to call the provider to verify since the listings can be outdated). If the provider is out-of-network and you still want to see him/her, find out what percentage of the visit will be covered. This will just be an estimate, however (and likely a low one). If the insurance company tells you that 50% of your $100 physical therapy appointment will be covered, that won’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a check from your insurance after the appointment (and paying out $100) for $50. It means that the insurance company will reimburse you 50% of the value of the service as they see it, not as it actually is. So, in this example, they might say that a physical therapy appointment is valued at $75 (what they call their “usual and customary”) and, therefore, you’d only receive $37.50 reimbursement (50% of the $75).

If you have questions regarding your insurance coverage and services at Gatewell, please contact us for additional information.