How Playing A Game Can Help Kids Navigate Trauma

Jul 29, 2015

The free "TF-CBT Triangle of Life" app is designed to be fun, but it's also a way for children who have experienced trauma to navigate their emotions and make healthy choices.
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

At first glance, the mobile app "Triangle of Life" looks like any other video game. Fun music, animals and prizes are won as the lead character moves through the game. 

But it isn’t just about jumping and scoring points or making it to a complicated finale — although that happens, too. Instead of coins, gamers collect experiences. The goal is to give kids who have experienced trauma and are in therapy a fun tool to navigate their emotions and make healthy choices.

The free app, called "TF-CBT Triangle of Life," was developed by two doctors who run the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital. They worked with programmers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center to create the game, deciding what’s appropriate for young children and incorporating tried-and-true therapy techniques. It’s been available a few months, and so far, has been downloaded thousands of times.

"Whether it's sexual abuse or domestic violence or the traumatic death of somebody important to them, or all of those things -- and many of the kids we have seen have had trauma throughout their lives and have experienced all of those kinds of things -- they start to think about themselves as bad people or that those bad things that have happened to them are their fault or that bad things will continue to happen to them," said Judith Cohen, one of the doctors who helped develop the app.

"So they start to have systematically negative thoughts about themselves and other people that other people can’t be trusted or the world is a dangerous place, and that’s really a very fundamental part of post-traumatic stress," she said.

The game, rooted in a technique called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or TF-CBT, helps combat that. 

"Triangle of Life" takes place in an African jungle. The main character is a lion who helps other animals with negative thoughts.

Doctor and co-creator Anthony Mannarino said that by examining the root of their thoughts, players learn to get along better and have more positive feelings.

"It really helps kids understand that the thought they might have about a certain situation may not necessarily be accurate or helpful, and the lion helps these other animals think it through in a way that’s more helpful," Mannarino said.

Then they’re picking a more helpful and accurate thought, Cohen said.

"They get used to doing that in their real life," he said. "So when they start to think, my friend doesn’t like me, is that an accurate thought or maybe they just didn’t notice me or maybe they were thinking about something else or maybe they were worried about something going on at home."

It's not just kids who play the game.

"We used to teach parents the same skill," Cohen said. "We would draw a triangle — here’s a thought, here’s a feeling, here’s a behavior — and give them examples. Now we have the game and often parents will play the game, too."

The app is available via Google Play and Apple iTunes.