What Is Play Therapy?
Do you have a child or know a child between the ages of 3 and 9 years old who is struggling to fit in? throwing uncontrollable tantrums? hitting, kicking, and pushing other kids at daycare? struggling with anxiety? having a difficult time focusing on schoolwork? or someone who may have experienced medical trauma from a procedure or hospital visit? These are all common challenges children may experience and a little extra support may help them to work through it. Play Therapy offers your child a safe and calming space to process the "yucky stuff" they may not have the words or cognitive development to fully understand or put into words. Understanding what play therapy is and its benefits can often be confusing. I hope to simply lay it out for you in a way that makes sense, offers you some hope, and gives you practical tips to try at home to support the kiddos in your life!
"Enter into children's play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet." - Virginia Axline
Play Therapy Basics
Play is the most natural way children communicate while their brains are still developing. Play becomes children's language and the toys become their words. That's why Play Therapy is such a great way to meet struggling kiddos exactly where they are! Play Therapy is an evidenced-based approach to helping children with behavioral issues, mental health concerns, or even to process traumatic events. Within the context of a safe space and therapeutic relationship, play facilitates integration of the whole-brain and allows the child to process through difficult emotions and experiences they don't quite understand yet. During a Play Therapy session, the play therapist will be tracking behavior, looking for themes and metaphors in the child's play, reflecting feelings throughout the play narratives, and supporting growth in emotional regulation. Research shows that parents involved in the Play Therapy process is vastly important in seeing change; therefore, parenting support, resources, and tips are typically offered along the child's therapy journey as well.
Benefits of Play Therapy
There are four primary therapeutic powers of play as identified by the Association of Play Therapy. That basically means there are four primary categories of change that Play Therapy can support, showing you real evidence of the benefits of Play Therapy. The 4 benefits of play therapy include: facilitates communication, fosters emotional wellness, enhances social relationships, and increases personal strengths. Each of these skills that is learned during the process will help support the child outside the playroom as they learn to navigate this crazy world we all live in.
3 Practical Tips for supporting young children's emotional regulation at home
Do you find yourself constantly telling your toddler, "No don't touch that. No don't throw that. No don't hit your sister. Stop doing this. Stop doing that!" It can get exhausting and quickly frustrating saying "no" and "stop" all day long as a mom. Guess what! It's exhausting and frustrating for your toddler too! Limit setting using the ACT method is a great way not only to set boundaries for safety and learning, but also allows your child to feel heard and understood as she begins to learn how to appropriately express her emotions. It will save you from the exhausting NO, and your little one from frustrating tantrums. It's a win-win!! So, what is this ACT thing I am talking about?
A stands for acknowledging feelings, C stands for communicating the limit, and T stands for targeting an alternative. So how does it work?
Imagine this...your 4 year old finds a jar of markers on a high shelf. While you look away for a moment, he grabs them and starts to turn the family room into his own colorful canvas, decorating everything in sight. Now instead of yelling and snatching the markers out of his hand in complete awe and frustration, take a deep inhale, and then say, "I know you are feeling SO creative today, but markers are not for drawing on the couch and lamp shade, you can choose to draw on a piece of paper or a napkin." See how you A - acknowledged his feelings, C - communicated the limit, and then T - targeted an alternative?
Oh, the power of giving little ones choices. This is a great way to teach your kids about responsibility and help them feel in control. Yes, even 2 years olds can begin learning responsibility! Keeping the choices age appropriate, for younger kids less complicated choices, and as they get older, more details and options can be added in. By giving your child a choice, it puts them back in control of the situation (obviously within reason since you as the parent came up with the choices!) and lowers the risk of a power struggle tantrum.
You can offer really simple easy options by starting out with, "Do you want to wear this outfit or that outfit today?" "Do you want chicken tenders or pizza for lunch?" "Should we brush teeth before bath time or after bath time?" It's important to stay firm and consistent with the options you give. If your kiddo chooses something different, you can respond with, "that wasn't an option" and then repeat the choices again. If they aren't able to make a choice, maybe it was too wordy, too complicated, or too many options and they got overwhelmed. It's okay! Try again with more simple choices!
It is such a natural response to say, "Wow look at your outfit, you look so cute!" or, when you child asks, do you like my drawing? to say, "Oh my goodness, I love it! It's perfect!" Instead of instantly offering praise, encourage effort. Praising a child can impact their interpersonal dialogue, self-confidence, and understanding of approval and acceptance. It begins to create a dependence on external value, where encouraging responses develops a sense of internal evaluation for the child. Although you may have the right intention behind praising your child, let's look at what a simple shift in responses from praise to effort can do to support your kiddo in the long run.
Encouraging effort builds self-responsibility and allows the child to look inward leading to strong problem-solving skills and increased confidence or self-esteem. The opposite of this would be building dependency and looking outward from others to receive a sense of approval or acknowledgment of their capabilities. Thinking back to those original statements, we can reframe new responses from praise to encouragement. A different way to acknowledge your little one in the cutest outfit, depending on the situation, could be, "Wow look at your outfit, you put it together all by yourself!" and when your kiddo asks, do you like my drawing? an encouraging response would be, "Oh my goodness, look at all the different colors and details! You must feel so proud of your hard work!"
Now, it is going to take practice and might not be so easy. That's okay! Keep at it and give yourself some grace if your automatic responses signing praises come out. It's normal. There are other ways to support self-esteem as well, and a few accidental praises here and there won't ruin everything. Just continue trying. You can even try to think of a few responses ahead of time for different situations and then practice saying them out loud, so they come out more naturally in the moment.
The Play Therapy Process
You may be thinking, "Okay, I understand what Play Therapy is and its benefits, and even some things to start trying at home, but what can I expect? I've never taken my child to therapy before, and I don't even know where to start." Well, the simple answer is, every therapist is different. But, you're in luck. I'm a Registered Play Therapist! I can tell you a sample of what you can expect from a practicing therapist.
The first step is finding a therapist you connect with and trust with your child. Looking for someone who specializes in your child's age and primary challenges can be helpful too! After the first phone call or email from a potential new Play Therapy friend's parent, I schedule a free consultation session. This offers the opportunity for me to find out more about what is going on and ensure I'm the right fit to meet the needs you are seeking for your child, share more about myself and how Play Therapy can help, and then answer any questions, soothe any hesitations, and begin offering support right there in the free consultation.
Next, you'd schedule an intake session, which would be just with parents and therapist (no little ears present!) so we can speak freely and more in detail about what's going on, get a full assessment, and work together to develop the most appropriate treatment plan for your kiddo. You will then schedule the Play Therapy sessions based on the agreed upon treatment plan. Play Therapy sessions are typically 45 minutes long in a specifically set up and designed playroom with just child and therapist in the room.
Once your child becomes comfortable in the playroom and connected to the therapist (tends to take about 3 sessions), then the work begins. The play becomes the child's language and the toys their words. Therapist and child will work together using play to support them through their challenges, process and heal from struggles, and learn skills to help support them outside of the playroom. I will also meet with parents, again without little ears present, throughout the Play Therapy process to discuss progress and growth, re-evaluate treatment plan, and offer parenting support and resources as needed. Once all goals are reached, your kiddo will be ready to graduate from Play Therapy!
Play Therapy Resources
Play Therapy Video for Parents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Onn_qF4pZ9Q
Play Therapy Video for Children: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmKxvTtSWoc
Video to Help in Understanding Play Therapy: https://youtu.be/reJpo-GaopM
Children are seen in Play Therapy for many different reasons including problems with their behavior, feelings, or thoughts. Big life changes such as divorce, moving, bullying, grief and loss, or trauma can be a reason these problems show up. It is a safe and natural way for children to process their experiences, manage their unhelpful thoughts, decrease challenging behaviors, and support emotional regulation through play. Try some of the helpful tips at home, explore the resources shared, or begin searching for a Play Therapist to start supporting your child today!