Play Therapy Q & A
What is play therapy?
Rather than use words, children use play to act out their emotions, past experiences, hopes and fears. Therefore therapists working with young people usually use some type of play therapy to help their clients manage difficult emotions and behaviors. There are several forms that play therapy can take but child-centered play therapy is non-directive, allowing the child the be the source of direction and growth. In this style of treatment, the therapist follows the lead of the child using empathy, reflection, unconditional positive regard and attachment principles to create an environment of acceptance and safety. Within this therapeutic context, children have the opportunity to express their anger, hostility, longing and loneliness and receive acceptance, encouragement and recognition. Most play therapists regard behavioral problems in children as failed attempts by the child to make their needs known. Within the therapeutic room, these maladaptive attempts to be true to themselves are accepted and eventually transformed through the play and the relationship with the therapist. A similar process can be seen in adult talk therapy, by which self-expression and examination lead to understanding, acceptance and transformation.
Does my child need play therapy?
If you’re interested in play therapy, chances are you have a child in your life you’re seeking help for. Play therapy might be right for your child if they’re suffering from emotional distress, caught in a negative behavioral cycle, are suffering from low self-esteem or if you’re anticipating emotional distress from an upcoming disruption (i.e. divorce). While many parents understand that their child is in distress, it can be difficult to know how to handle difficult behavior, depression, anger and hostility, anxiety or hyperactivity or withdrawal from normal behaviors. Often, parents are not completely sure why their child needs therapy and that’s ok- play therapy is as diagnostic as it is curative. Play therapy offers children a safe container for emotional distress and help kids develop a strong sense of self-esteem, the opportunity to learn positive communication skills and the chance for creative self-expression. For a more personalized assessment, please feel free to contact me.
What psychological traditions did it arise from?
Anna Freud and Melanie Klein were some of the earliest thinkers in the child psychology domain. Freud believed that play could reveal a child’s unconscious mind and create a mutual understanding between adult and child. Klein also viewed play as a sort of substitute for adult verbalizing. It was Virginia Axline that emphasized the importance of the therapist-child relationship, pointing out the imperative of giving a child “freedom and room to state himself in his own terms”.
What kinds of tools does it employ?
Play therapy uses a wide variety of toys and art supplies including: dolls, puppets, toy food, doctors kits, costumes, trucks and trains, blocks, clay, paint, markers and other art supplies. One child may use art materials to convey his need for boundaries where another child may use dolls to express rage towards family members. Truthfully, one of the best parts of my job is that every child is unique and plays in highly individualistic ways. In play therapy, a child is given free reign to pick up and play with whatever they are drawn to. Some of the richest therapeutic moments occur when a child invites the therapist to play, assigning a puppet or toy to interact with their own. In fact, one of the only universal themes within psychology occurs at the beginning of the process when most will begin by testing the therapeutic relationship for acceptance and encouragement. In response to such tests, the therapist’s use of unconditional positive regard and attachment will give a child permission to emote and explore that which had been previously fearful or chaotic territory.
Why is it effective?
Play therapy offers children psychological freedom to express themselves. The impact of this experience cannot be overstated. Freedom to express oneself is dependent upon the relationship and environment created by the therapist: one of empowerment, safety and acceptance. Much as in adult talk therapy, this helps children internalize a positive self-acceptance around emotions that are previously rejected and dis-owned. Empirical studies show us that play therapy is effective in helping children manage their emotions and experience relief from a wide variety of mental and emotional health symptoms.
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