What is Play Therapy?
Young children do not typically come into the therapy room, sit down, and begin to discuss their problems. This kind of “talk therapy” requires abstract thinking and a level of ability to verbalize thoughts and feelings that most children have not yet acquired. Instead, therapy with children must take into account their developmental needs and abilities. Terry Kottman describes play therapy as “an approach to counseling young children in which the counselor uses toys, art supplies, games, and other play media to communicate with clients using the ‘language’ of children—the ‘language’ of play.” Play therapy can be directive, where the therapist leads the play, or nondirective, where the therapist allows the child to lead the play. It may also combine these two approaches.
How does it work?
As Kottman says, play therapy allows children to communicate in their natural “language.” Play is familiar to children; they know how to engage in it. A child’s play gives the therapist insight into their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and desires; it provides a sense of who the child is and what they need. Play can also help the child to address feelings from a safe psychological distance. For instance, a child may not feel ready to share her own feelings about her parents’ separation, but might be able to talk about how the characters feel in the book “Dinosaurs Divorce” or tell a story about the baby puppet who wonders whether it’s her fault that the mommy and daddy puppets are fighting.
Children can also use play to try out different solutions to their problems. A child experiencing bullying at school can have a doll play out different responses to the other dolls’ insults. What happens if the doll runs away? Fights back? Tells a trusted adult? Playing out different scenarios allows the child to take risks and explore the pros and cons of various responses in a safe environment.
Children who have experienced a traumatic event and been unable to process it can do so through play therapy. Replaying a situation in which a child felt helpless, such as a motor vehicle accident, can help a child gain a sense of power over the incident. The therapist assists this process by providing a safe environment, and by suggesting other options when a child seems stuck. Children can return to a theme or a scenario as many times as they need to. As play therapist Eliana Gil explains, they “can create stories, undo them, transform them, forget them, or keep bringing them up.” In this way, the child can revisit a traumatic event or a difficult situation as many times as necessary to regain a sense of power and well-being.
What can I do as a parent to assist the play therapy process?
- As with any kind of therapy, the most important determination of efficacy is the client-therapist relationship. Change cannot take place if the child does not feel safe with and unconditionally accepted by the therapist. Consequently, it’s important to find a therapist with whom both you and your child feel comfortable.
- Be patient! Know that the play therapy process may be lengthy. Your child needs to feel comfortable and the therapist needs to get to know him or her before change can happen. As your child works through some difficult feelings, you may see an increase in troublesome behaviour before things improve.
- It is important for your child to feel safe in the playroom and not worry that what he does or says will be reported back to his parents. However, therapy is generally most effective when parents are an active part of the process. Many play therapists handle this by sharing with parents themes and patterns that they observe, while keeping the specifics confidential. Talk to your child’s therapist to find out how he or she handles confidentiality.
- Finally, be prepared to work as part of the team. While your child may be the official client, the best outcomes occur when the family as a whole can make changes. Be open to receiving feedback and suggestions from your child’s therapist, and be honest with them about how things are going at home. Remember that you, your child, and the therapist are working as a team.