Play therapy is a structured approach to therapy that builds on the natural language of children, the language of play. Therapists use various play materials to help children express what is troubling them when they are not able to verbalize their thoughts and feelings as adults do in more traditional talk therapy. In play therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language to work thru feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, sadness, anger, loss, rejection. Through play, therapists may help children learn more adaptive behaviors when there are problems with emotional or social skills. The major goals of play therapy are the enhancement of self-esteem and decision-making skills. These tools help children to handle life’s various stressors as well as providing the confidence and insight necessary to resolve any problem behaviors. Play therapy is widely regarded as the most effective form of therapy for children ages 3-11 years.
Play Therapy is a method that offers significant help for childhood issues and problems including: peer interactions, separation anxiety, difficulties reading social cues, toilet training, withdrawn behavior, school misbehavior, inattention, impulsivity and aggression, playing in an age appropriate way, separation and divorce as well as various trauma experiences. Play-Family Therapy can also be used preventively when parents feel that the situation may decline without attention to a particular concern.
After an evaluation, the child’s play therapy sessions begin with twenty minutes of family therapy, which addresses the issues of concern. During the family therapy, the therapist meets with the child and the accompanying parent. During the play therapy, the therapist meets in a playroom with the child. Through the play, the child’s conscious and unconscious communication allow for deeper insight into areas of concern. During play therapy children use their whole mind and body and reveal their unconscious thoughts, fears, anxieties and wishes. The therapist is continually tracking the metaphors or themes of play during the session to understand the root of the child’s problematic behaviors. These patterns are shared with the parents at regularly scheduled parent sessions (without the child present) where the therapist will work with the parents to develop home behavioral strategies.
By confronting problems in a play therapy setting, children can find healthier solutions. Play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns. Adults use words to express their concerns, seek help and eventually gain mastery over the problem. Children use play to master feelings, concerns and confusing or unsettling life events. Play therapy provides children with a clinical setting in which they can create lasting resolutions that can be safely discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies.
When seeking therapy it is always preferable to choose a therapist who has experience in helping clients with similar issues. For example, while most therapists have some knowledge about sexuality issues, sexual problems are best managed by a therapist who concentrates on sexual function/dysfunction issues and has received specialized training in these areas. Similarly, someone seeking help for an eating disorder is best helped by a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
In our opinion, all children ages 3-11 can benefit from play therapy. Play therapy is designed to be fun! From a child’s perspective, he or she gets to play with sand, a doll house, stuffed animals, toy soldiers, draw and have the undivided attention of a supportive and safe adult. Play is one way children make sense of their worlds. Children are constantly acting out their worlds and making their own particular changes as they see fit. For instance it is common for children to play cops and robbers, pretend to be a mommy feeding her child, act out what it is like to go to work, give punishments for not following rules of a certain game, pretend to be a doctor fixing a broken leg or even pretend to be a cat, drinking milk from a bowl. Play therapy builds on children’s natural skills and tendencies, and through gentle guidance helps children gain control over their feelings and how they express themselves. Typically children cannot control their environment, only how they react to their environment. Helping children with decision making skills about how to react to their environment is a fundamental goal of play therapy. In addition to working closely with the child, the play therapist will work closely with the parents to develop strategies to best support the child at home. An extra set of eyes can be useful in helping parents step back and evaluate if their parenting style works with their child’s particular needs. It is important to realize that not all parenting strategies work for all children.
Just like we believe all children could benefit from play therapy, we believe all parents of children can benefit from extra guidance in how to be the best parent that they can be for their child. To help you determine if play therapy is right for you and your family, we have developed a basic guideline / checklists. These checklists ask you to consider recent life events data that your child is reporting directly to you, your own observations of your child and feedback you have received from other important people about your child.
Change is a continuous and permanent part of life. Sometimes abrupt change or significant changes can be difficult for children to cope with or adjust to. Unlike adults, children do not always have a framework to make sense of their experiences, let alone have the language to express their feelings. Furthermore they may not have developed the coping skills necessary to deal with these changes. Review the statements below. If you check one or more of the events below, this simply means that there has been a significant life event for your child that they might need help with. The other checklists will help you determine if your child is struggling with one of these major life events, or perhaps another issue entirely.
My child has recently experienced…
It is very important to consider your own observations of your child. Parents typically have a sixth sense about their children. Often they know when something is off, even before a professional does. You know your child best. With that being said, examine the checklist below of things to look out for. Check any relevant statements.
I have observed that my child…
Because your child probably spends significant amounts of time in the presence of adults other than yourself, like at school, at a babysitters, or a relatives, other adults may have valuable feedback about your child. It is possible that for various reasons either you have not picked up on the issue or your child is not engaging in the particular behaviors around you. Review the statements below and check off any relevant ones.
Other important people in my child’s life (teachers, coaches, relatives) have told me that my child…
Sometimes children are able to verbalize that they are struggling or need help. Other times children do not have the language, do not know how to ask for help, or help is available. Keep in mind that children ages 3-6 may not have the verbal skills to give you specific feedback. Pay attention to if a child this is age simply isn’t progressing the way his or her peers are, or they say things that are unsettling. If you check one or more statements it is possible that your child is attempting to tell you that they need help.
Take at least thirty minutes to reflect on the checklists. If you have a supportive partner, share the checklists with them and see if they have any additions or a different perspective. If you have any of the major life events checked off, you should strongly consider play therapy for your child. Play therapy is critical in cases where children have been raised in chaotic families or have experienced severe trauma. Play therapy is also critical to help children cope with major life events such as divorce or death. In these situations parents are usually going through so much of their own pain and grief that it is beneficial to have another person be able to support the child. If you did not have any major life events checked off, but felt concerned about some of the other statements you checked off in the other checklists, take some time to think about whether you would like to use play therapy to address this particular issue. Remember, play therapy is a way for children to work out their issues in a safe, structured environment. It also helps parents adjust their parenting styles to better meet the specific needs for their child. Play therapy is a great tool to engage younger children. Traditional talk therapy is simply too advanced. Remember, kids are like sponges, they acquire new skills quickly. Sometimes a little intervention can reset a kid onto a much healthier path.
Play therapy is a resource that can be beneficial to both children and their parents, whether the need is critical or not. If you decide to pursue play therapy for your child, make sure it is convenient, as well as affordable. Also make sure that all of the significant adults in the child’s life are on board and comfortable with pursuing play therapy.
Play therapy is designed for children ages 3-11, as play is the way children make sense of their world and express themselves. The benefits of play therapy for children include developing appropriate social skills, learning how to express emotion appropriately, learning age appropriate behavior, developing coping skills, acquiring effective problem solving skills, etc. And while play therapy is a specific technique used to address children’s unique needs, parental involvement is an essential piece. Not only are parents critical resources for the therapist to be able to gather background data to help him or her assess the situation, but they in part set goals and create a treatment plan together. Then, during intensive sessions, the therapist works one-on-one with his or her client, and then parents are able to reinforce the emerging skills that are being taught. Because of the amount of one-on-one time that is spent with the child, the therapist truly gets to know the child and can offer another set of eyes to help the parent establish parenting behaviors that will meet the specific needs of the child. Children all react in their own unique ways to any given situation. One parenting style does not fit all children – even in the same household. Play therapists can provide you, as the parent, with effective communication and parenting techniques that are specific to the needs of your child. Review the benefits of play therapy below to learn more about how play therapy can help you as a parent!
It can be challenging to meet all your child’s needs, even for the best parents. Sometimes due to a mismatch in parenting styles, a lack of information or parents dealing with their own issues, it can be hard to meet all of your child’s needs. Having your child assessed by a professional who specializes in working with children is an opportunity for you to receive feedback about how to work with your child given his or her specific needs or issues. In working with your child, the play therapist will be able to provide you with feedback about how adjust your parenting style to better fit your child. The play therapist can also provide you with specific skills or techniques to better communicate and interact with your child.
Children have many varied emotional needs, and these needs evolve over time. To explore and identify your child’s emotional needs, I have introduced Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory as a framework for understanding. Simply put, Erikson believed that there are eight stages in life, and we are all faced with the challenge to resolve the “crisis” at each stage (Wrightsman, 1994, p. 63). The skills learned, or not learned, in each stage either help or hurt the individual in the next. Described below are the first four stages of development that relate to infants and children. Read the descriptions below to help identify what stage, or what emotional needs your child might be struggling with.
Stage 1—Trust Versus Mistrust: This first stage begins in infancy and is the time when children learn about basic trust (p. 64). In thinking about your child, consider if your child seems able to trust others. Consider trust within the family and outside the family, with peers, and with authority figures. Remember, some mistrust of others is a healthy but if your child has trusting just about anyone, or has in their life had their trust violated, there may be significant work to do around the issue of trust
Stage 2—Autonomy Versus Shame & Doubt: This second stage occurs from eighteen months to three years old and is related to how children gain control of their bodies. Children’s self confidence typically grows when they are encouraged to explore their bodies, the social world and the physical world (p. 65). Children can struggle with shame, guilt, even anxiety if they were criticized about this exploration. Anxiety, guilt and shame may arise too if they became frustrated by or fearful about exploration. Children might develop low self-confidence or struggle with trusting themselves if they recognize their inability to master certain skills. Another consequence could be that your child becomes afraid to try new things, which can be very limiting and further fuel the low self-esteem, anxiety and shame.
Stage 3—Initiative Versus Guilt: Around ages three to five children learn that they can influence their family and others around them (p. 66). Children often struggle with this new found power and how to use if effectively. Family dynamics can greatly impact whether this power is used appropriately or not. Consider the family roles and how your child fits into this dynamic. Issues around self-confidence, guilt, shame, anger and even trust can become evident during this stage.
Stage 4—Industry Versus Inferiority: This stage occurs from ages five to twelve and is related to children’s exploration of the world outside their family unit. Children typically develop a sense of accomplishment during this stage, as they have experiences in school, sports, other hobbies, social events, etc. However others can also make children feel like failures at this stage. To some degree children do need to learn how to feel sure of themselves and their abilities despite failure or others criticism (p. 66). Again issues around self-confidence, guilt, shame, anger and trust can emerge.
Once you have the specific skill set and style to be more able to meet your child’s needs, you will find yourself more effective as a parent. The therapist might teach you how to be more structured or less structured, how to encourage creativity and exploration and how to create an environment for your child where they have an appropriate amount of responsibility. You might also learn how to increase your child’s options and experiences with both their limitations and strengths in mind, how to maintain appropriate roles in the family and how to set healthy boundaries with your child and other family members. As you, and your child, adjust to this new way of interacting, the play therapist can also serve as a guide, offering you feedback about how you are doing. Any new way of being usually takes time getting used to, so expect needing this time for yourself and for your child. Having the therapist there to support you through this process this another benefit of play therapy.
Feel More Confident as a Parent
The Benefits of Play Therapy for Parents in Philadelphia PA, Mechanicsville VA, Ocean City NJ, and Santa Fe NM
After you learn a new skill set to use with your child, and being to use it effectively, you will feel more confident as a parent. Feeling more confident about your parenting skills will likely allow you to have more positive feelings about being a parent. While you will still feel stressed, overwhelmed, confused, angry, etc. at times, you will hopefully feel more of the positive emotions that can come with being a parent. You will also spend less time second guessing yourself or feeling poorly about your parenting. Remember, no parent is perfect and every parent struggles with their role at times.
Having an expert guide you can take the pressure off. You don’t have face the difficulties of parenting alone. Sometimes simply having the support of another adult makes maintaining change easier and can relieve some of the guilt you may have been struggling with over your parenting. Also, when you are exasperated the therapist can serve as another person who can take over and give you a needed and deserved break. Remember, we all have our limits. All of these new skills and changes can help you reprioritize how you spend your time as well, and can help you put yourself back in the center of your own world—a healthy place anyone to be. In addition, as your confidence in your parenting abilities increases, it is likely you will experience a general boost of confidence.
Conclusion…Play therapy can help you as the parent to be more able to meet your child’s specific needs, be more effective as a parent and feel more confident as a parent. Play therapy can serve as a supportive and helpful environment for you to learn more suitable skills to interact and communicate with your child. Furthermore seeing the progress from your hard work is rewarding and encouraging.
Self help articles written by our therapists:
If you would like to schedule a therapy appointment, you are encouraged to look at our clinician's biographies and schedule online. Each therapists phone number is listed on their home page or you can call 215-922-LOVE (5683) x 100 and speak with one of our intake specialists or to call (267) 324-9564.