Theraplay | Counseling | Therapy


theraplay: Play Therapy in Philadelphia, Mechanicsvilles, Ocean City, Santa Fe image

(as adapted from the book by Booth & Jernberg)

If we could peek into a child’s mind, we might encounter very profound yet fundamental questions. Am I important to you? Am I needed? Am I wanted? Am I safe? Will I survive?
These types of questions are largely answered in the parent-child relationships, which is one of the primary focuses of the Theraplay model.

Just like there are multiple different theoretical approaches and modalities clinicians use in psychological treatment, there are also many different models and approaches to play therapy as well. Theraplay is an engaging, relationship-focused treatment modality that is interactive, physical (and sensory) and fun. It helps parents and children build better relationships through attachment-based play. Its principles are based on attachment theory and the significant that impact secure, attuned parenting has on the development of a child.

This unique relationship-based model is specifically designed to help families reconnect and fully engage with one another. In attuned, empathic interactions with parents, a child develops a strong sense of self while the parent is able to view the child as an individual (not just a reflection of the parent).

The founders of the Theraplay model combined their research with data from client interactions to identify the key components they believed characterize a healthy parent-child relationship. They incorporated these components into the Theraplay model. They include:

• Interactive and relationship based
• Direct, here-and-now focus
• Guided by adult
• Responsive, attuned, empathic and reflective
• Geared to the preverbal, social, right-brain level of development
• Multisensory (touch)
• Playful

The primary focus of Theraplay is not behavioral change. Rather, it is to strengthen the parent-child relationship to achieve what researchers would call “secure attachment.” The outcomes associated with secure attachment include optimism, high self-esteem, the ability to empathize and get along well with others, the ability to self-regulate (manage emotional ups and downs), the willingness to take risks and try new things, and the ability to trust others and maintain close, healthy relationships.

Contrary to what some parents think, children do not develop these incredibly important skills simply by following directions or doing as they are told. While self-control is critical to future success in life, it isn’t learned solely by directive-compliance type discipline. Self-control is but one of the many executive functioning skills rooted in the PFC (prefrontal cortex) of the brain. The more well-developed the PFC, the more self-control a person will have. Secure attachment fosters brain growth – specifically, neural connections that promote empathy, morality, self-regulation and insight.

Who can benefit from Theraplay?

Being cared for by attuned, responsive parents is essential to healthy emotional development. Gaps in these early experiences can lead to lingering behavioral or relationship difficulties even after the stressor or event is over. Because what we learn early in life affects the neural circuitry of our brain, relational trauma and/or childhood traumatic stress can have lasting impact on a child’s development. Children may fear giving up control, keep others at a distance, be emotionally volatile or lack empathy for others. They may be overwhelmed by feelings of shame, seeing themselves as bad, worthless and unlovable. All of these problems can make it difficult for parents to meet their child’s underlying needs.

Theraplay was designed to address these and many other outward expressions of internal hurt.

Some common behavioral indicators that can be addressed with Theraplay include:

• Fearfulness/shyness
• Relationship/attachment problems
• Withdrawal/depression
• Anxiety/social difficulties
• Trauma (environmental or relational)
• Autism spectrum disorders (aspergers)

Because of its focus on relationships and attachment, Theraplay is ideally suited to address issues common in foster and adoptive families. Children who have been in more than one (foster/adoptive) placement have a history of disrupted relationships and trauma which create significant difficulty trusting others and often show up masked as behavior problems. Theraplay has also proven helpful for families who have experienced significant life changes such as the birth of a new child, divorce, illness of a parent/caregiver or death of a loved one.

Four Dimensions

Theraplay techniques are divided into four dimensions that are reminiscent of the specific bonding interactions typical between infant and caregiver: structure, engagement, nurture and challenge.

Structure says to a child: “You are safe with me because I know how to take good care of you.”

Structure is NOT about control, but rather about conveying a comforting sense that someone bigger and more capable can make the world safe and predictable. Although all children benefit from structure, this dimension is particularly important for children who are overactive, unfocused, or easily overwhelmed. It’s also very helpful for children who are anxious and have an apparent need to control situations. Structure is helpful for parents who set limits but have difficulty following through, who lack confident leadership or who have trouble with emotional regulation themselves.


Engagement says to a child: “You are not alone in the world. You are special to me. You are able to interact appropriately with others.”

Engaging activities are especially helpful for children who are withdrawn, avoid contact, constrained or rigid. These types of interactions help a child build positive self-esteem and build confidence to take risks and enjoy interacting with other people.


Nurture says to a child: “You are lovable. I want you to feel good. I will respond to your needs for care, comfort and affection.”

The intention of nurturing activities is to help the child relax and experience the calming effects of movement, touch and warm, responsive care. This sets the stage for the child to learn to self-regulate his/her own emotions when they arise. This dimension is useful for children who are overactive, aggressive or pseudo-mature.


Challenge says to a child: “You are capable of growing and making a positive impact on the world.”

When a parent supports her child’s exploration and mastery, the child gains confidence in his capacity to learn, accept challenges and to have realistic expectations of himself. He learns that it’s OK to take risks outside his comfort zone, and it’s OK to make mistakes or even fail. Challenging activities, set in an accepting environment, build a child’s competence and confidence.

Theraplay is one of the many play therapy modalities offered at the Center for Growth. To learn more about how it may benefit you and your child, give us a call at: 215 922 5683 x 100

You can also self schedule an inperson or virtual play therapy appointment

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