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What I Didn't Know About Play Therapy

Photograph by Twenty20

Have you ever thought your kid was struggling emotionally?

As a strong believer in therapy, I'd assumed that play therapy was just a scaled-down version of grown up therapy. I imagined it was mostly talking with maybe a few dolls tossed in for good measure.

It turns out I was wrong.

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So what is play therapy?

While adults generally communicate through language, kids, until the age of about 12, use play instead of words. In the words of Garry Landreth, Founder of the Center for Play Therapy, "The toys are the words and the play is the language."

To facilitate the child's language of play, therapists generally have a large stash of toys and figures clients can play with that are often set up in a separate playroom. Many offices also have tools for sand play as well as a bevy of art supplies.

Who is play therapy appropriate for?

Generally, play therapy is appropriate for kids age 3 through 12.

What are signs that a child could benefit from play therapy?

A play therapist can provide a safe place for the child to let out some of their big feelings.

If a child is having behavioral difficulties that are disruptive in school or at home, it might be time to consider play therapy. Similarly, if a family is experiencing a divorce, death, serious illness or other stressful situations, a play therapist can provide a safe place for the child to let out some of their big feelings. Play therapy is also appropriate for a child who has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event.

Emily Van Cannon, LCPC-C, LADC at Heart Stone Counseling in Portland, Maine, says, "Play therapy provides an opportunity for a child who has experienced trauma to rewrite the trauma narrative. During this process, the child might come to perceive her experience differently, (and experience it as) one where she has strength, power and resilience. This can have very positive life-long implications."

What happens during play therapy?

How a child chooses to express her feelings of mad, sad, scared and happy is never dictated by the therapist, and all feelings are acceptable.

Play therapy is usually child-led, meaning the child might pick a toy or an activity that they're drawn to.

Van Cannon says, "Some children have a great deal of emotional energy that manifests in their body. Play therapy is a safe place to release this physical and emotional energy." She explains that while in session, kids can yell, throw balls or punch pillows. "How a child chooses to express her feelings of mad, sad, scared and happy is never dictated by the therapist, and all feelings are acceptable," she says.

According to SeattlePlayTherapy.com, the therapist might reflect on how the child is interacting with toys. They may also notice the child's emotions, in lieu of asking direct questions.

In addition to playing alongside the client, some therapists will also work with a child on techniques for dealing with difficult emotions. For instance, a therapist might teach breathing exercises to a kid who struggles with emotional regulation.

What is the parent or caretaker's role?

While it varies depending on the therapist and the situation, parents are generally involved but not present for the entire session. Some therapists will reserve occasional sessions to work solely with the parents on parenting techniques or to discuss the parents' concerns about their child.

"I choose to work with the parents a great deal, especially if the child is young," says Van Cannon. Often, a parent will be present for a portion of the session, then wait outside until the session is over. This allows the parent to be a part of the process, while also giving the child space to have their own relationship with the therapist. "The dynamic of play can change when the parent is out of the room; some children feel more free to express certain feelings without a parent closely observing them and asking questions about their play," Van Cannon explains.

Interestingly, parents are usually asked to not pepper their child with questions after their session. Instead of asking how it went, parents are advised to say something like, "We can go home now." This gives the child room to have his or her experience, and also offers a sense of privacy.

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How do I find a play therapist?

You can search through the Association for Play Therapy to find a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) in your area. You can also check with your child's school for recommendations.

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