The Stolen Child: The power of the child’s capacity to play with reality

“You can’t offer therapy if YOU can’t play!”

This quote captures a theme Winnicott reminded therapists about in relation to their clinical work with children.

The innocence of children has a magic. It is dimmed in the shadow of the bulk of grown up issues. Is it, therefore, any surprise that clinical approaches to working with children is often related to the ideals therapists have and whether they respect the power of play?

Therapist’s styles are developed as a reaction to the orientations of psychotherapy teachers, tutors, clinical supervisors, their own analysis and the perspectives they embrace and those they reject. Our own training and experiences as therapists embodies our hopes and wishes about what it means to be adult and human. It would be reasonable to consider that we might grow to be the sort of therapist we might have wanted for ourselves. This takes a lot of training and analysis and a long time for it to become internalised and recreated, so it becomes a very personal style of psychotherapy.

On top of this, every day we meet a new child or parent in the consulting room. Again our clinical work is shaped by the moment to moment interactions in relation to the needs and the presenting problems the child or parent brings. Parental holding, containment and repair to the ruptures and impingements causing damage to the relationship between a parent and child were given permission to work with in Winnicott’s notion of the ‘good enough parent’. In this, failures are allowed, as all people have faults and all parents fail.

With all his own training and experience as a paediatrician and a psychoanalyst, after thirty years in psychoanalytic practice Winnicott became disillusioned with the right interpretation. He reflected this in this statement:

“It is only in recent years that I have become unable to wait and wait for the natural evolution of the transference arising out of the patient’s growing trust in the psychoanalytic technique and setting, and to avoid breaking up this natural process by making interpretations. It will be noticed that I am talking about the making of interpretations and not interpretations as such. It appals me to think how much deep change I have prevented or delayed in patients in a certain classification category by my personal need to interpret. If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy, and I now enjoy this joy more than I used to enjoy the sense of having been clever”. 

The establishment of a therapeutic holding environment by the therapist creates an antidote to the relational impingements experienced by the child as a result of, (for whatever reason), a fracturing of trust in the child’s capacity to find the reliability and holding they need from a parent to feel safe and contained. 

I am linking Winnicott’s notion about the importance of play to the imaginative spaces children can create to escape and contain the disturbing realities of their world.

Playing is the key to a child’s emotional and psychological well-being and children can be playful if the parents or therapists respond to them warmly and playfully. If the parent or therapist doesn’t respond playfully the child eventually gives up trying to elicit play which is the medium children communicate through. 

As therapist I create what Winnicott describes as a ‘potential space’.

This ‘potential space’ is an inviting and safe interpersonal space created for the child within which the child can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to the therapist. Through play the child invites the therapist to play with their reality with them and reflect on the conflicts the child is presented with that he cannot make sense of.

The poet W. B. Yeats creates a ‘potential space’ to play with the idea of an escape from the reality of a troubled childhood and re-enter the world of fairies through words:.

“Where the wave of moonlight glosses

The dim gray sands with light,

Far off by furthest Rosses

We foot it all night,

Mingling hands and mingling glances

Till the moon has taken flight:

To and fro we leap

And chase the frothy bubbles,

While the world is full of troubles 

And anxious in its sleep.

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a fairy hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”.

Yeats’s eloquent words written in 1886 revolve around a group of fairies that lure a child away from his home to a fairy world. The fairies take the child by the hand and lead him away from the tears and sorrows that the child can’t comprehend.

This poem is one of my favourites and captures so well the dilemma of many of the children brought to my consulting rooms by their parents. A child can often feel the need to escape from the realities of the discord and distress of their parents and conjures up in their imagination an internal world of playful fairies without articulating why. 

A paren’ts perception of the meaning of their child’s behaviours can often be attributed to the child’s presenting concerns. A child will be brought to my consulting rooms and the parents might hope I can uncover the reasons’ for their child’s cutting off from the realities of the real world into an imaginary world. Eventualy, in the course of the initial assessment a child will often go on to talk about their unease and emotional upset in the context of their mum and dad’s unresolved conflicts with each other. 

In the words of Yeats’s poem a child will often say they often find themselves ‘leaping to and fro’ as they feel they often have to do to relationally move in and between both their parents. The child often discloses they fear if they leap too far towards one parent more than the other parent they will be disloyal and hurtful to the other parent. The child feels they are in trouble and they know their parents relationship is in trouble. The child is unable to emotionally manage the parental relationship distress they are exposed to and will often internally split off from their irreconcilable feelings by disassociating from them and detaching from that parent.

For some children when this has gone on for too long, they find internal hiding places and create an imaginary happier internal place they can escape to. This is the ‘idealised space’ they create to recapture an idealised childhood.

The poem of The Stolen Child is a metaphor for a child’s wish to return to childhood unencumbered and with the burdens of the troubles of his or her parents unresolved conflicts with each other. The poem plays on the fear in the child that ‘the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand’. This is chanted in a rhythmic way to entice the child to leaving by the repetition of the four line chorus at the end of each verse. Nature and the land of fairies present images of an escape from the sorrows of the world and is a myth about a longing to return to a childhood free from troubles.

Parents come to parenting with their own subjectivity and their own past parental conflicts which they may not have resolved.  Often parents may end up projecting on to their partners the conflicts from their own parenting. Parents can often be unconsciously affected by the intergenerational conflictual dynamics at play which they may be unable to make sense of themselves because to them it’s an ‘unthought known’, in their own experience of what they consciously know (Bollas: 1978).  

The subjectivity of parents and children is highlighted by Winnicott (1975, 1977) and is based on the concept of the ‘good enough environment’ and ‘the good enough parent’. Winnicott proposes that the role of the mother and father is closely connected in providing ‘good enough care’ to their baby.

And then follows the family, the basis of which is the union of fathers and mothers, sharing responsibility for what they did together, that we call a human being, a baby” (Winnicott: 1975, p1 91).

Winnicott also wrote about the baby being an organisation in motion propelled by a spark of life in themselves driving forth their innate emotional and psychological growth and development.

The need of the child to be loved forces them to comply with the parent’s subjectivity. The voice of the parents is the first recognition and holds the baby and child helpless and hostage to what is communicated in the tone and rhythm of the voice. In terms of the love a parent has for a child where a parent has unmet narcissistic needs of their own these can be reactivated through an over investment in their child. Narcissistic investment in the child is present in most parents most of the time. This becomes problematic when there is an excess of narcissistic wounds in a parent. This seems apt to describe how a child might be unconsciously influenced by the absolute need to be loved by that parent and they over identify with them.

“There cannot be much: much love, much pleasure, much joy, while on the one side, the parental function is over invested. However, the function is, for the most part, infiltrated by narcissism. Children are loved as long as they meet the narcissistic objectives their parents were unable to attain” (Winnicott: 1975, p. 256).

I support Winnicott’s notion of good enough parenting as if the child doesn’t have this they will grow and mature with their own needs unmet and may unconsciously look to their own child to fulfil their unmet needs in childhood.

“Where the wandering water gushes

From the hills above Glen-Car, 

In pools among the rushes

That scarce could bathe a star

We seek for slumbering trout

And whispering in their ears

Give them unquiet dreams;

Leaning softly out

From ferns that drop their tears

Over the young streams.

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a fairy hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”.

W. B. Yeats.



Bollas, C. (1987) The Shadow of the Object: The Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. Free Association Books.

Tal, R., Tal, K. (2017) Child-Parent Relationship Therapy – A Dialogue with Winnicott’s Theory. International Journal of Play Therapy. Association of Play Therapy. 2017, Vol. 26, No. 3, p. 153 – 159.

Yeats, W. B. (1886) The Stolen Child.

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