Identifying When Your Child Could… | Counseling | Therapy

Identifying When Your Child Could Benefit From Play Therapy

Alex Robboy , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director

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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.

Life Events:

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…

  • A loss or death of a loved one, friend or pet
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Neglect
  • Emotional abuse
  • A significant medical event (surgery, major illness)
  • The separation or divorce of his/her parents
  • Major role changes at home
  • The addition of a new sibling

Your Own Observations:

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…

  • Does not seem to want to, or dislikes playing with other children
  • Is not liked by other children
  • Seems too withdrawn or isolates him/herself from others
  • Seems more withdrawn or isolated than normal
  • Does not have age appropriate behavior
  • Does not have age appropriate boundaries
  • Experiences difficulty interacting with other children
  • Seems more impulsive than usual
  • Struggles with understanding social cues
  • Acts out and has been aggressive
  • Has difficulty concentrating
  • Has regressed in terms of behavior (for example-starts wetting himself/herself a lot but has already been potty trained for some time)
  • Is more anxious than usual
  • Has been engaging in compulsive behaviors (for example washing hands obsessively)
  • Experiences difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Has frequent night terrors / nightmares
  • Complains of physical aches or illness despite the doctor being unable to confirm a cause
  • Has experienced dramatic changes in sleep or eating behaviors
  • Experiences bed wetting (where the child used to not wet the bed, and now does, which is different than a child simply having undeveloped bladder muscles)
  • Fights almost constantly with siblings or parents

Other People’s Feedback:

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…

  • Has trouble playing with others
  • Is withdrawn
  • Does not have age appropriate behavior
  • Has difficult interacting with other children
  • Is impulsive
  • Seems to miss social cues
  • Has been aggressive with others
  • Does not follow directions
  • Has trouble concentrating
  • Is anxious
  • Engages in compulsive behaviors
  • Seems to have many somatic complaints
  • Calls himself/herself stupid, slow, etc.

Information From Your 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.

  • My child (aged6-11) tells me that he/she…
  • Does not have friends
  • Gets picked on
  • Is upset, mad, sad but cannot identify or explain why
  • Doesn’t like the way another adult or child makes them feel
  • Doesn’t like the way another adult or child plays with him/her
  • Is often afraid or scared but cannot identify or explain why
  • Wants to kill himself or herself

Reflection of Your Checklists:

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.

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