So you’ve found a play therapist for your child and scheduled your first appointment. You have no idea what to expect – what is play therapy, anyway, and how is it going to help your child work through what they're struggling with? You want to help make sure your kid is getting all they can out of play therapy, but you’re not sure what you can do to make that happen. If any of this sounds like you, great! This blog will be a helpful introduction to play therapy – with what you need to know as a parent.
1. What is play therapy?
Play therapy is a type of therapy where a therapist uses play, toys, and games to help the child explore, express, and safely experience the difficulties they are working through. Using play, the therapist uncovers insights otherwise unable to be heard and recognized through normal dialogue. Kids explore for understanding physically, so play therapy is the most developmentally-appropriate way to approach child therapy. It allows the therapist to meet the child at their level, helping with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Play therapy is a safe arena for a therapist to witness the solutions the child attempts during play. The goal of play therapy is to help children behave more adaptively and learn new ways to solve problems or process past trauma. Play therapy’s effectiveness as a mental health approach is supported by empirical psychological research. Play therapists are rigorously trained through a certification process that ensures a competent use of play as a healing agent.
2. How does play therapy work?
Play therapy’s focus on relationships and experience creates positive changes in the brain. While kids explore their concerns, the therapeutic relationship helps regulate their emotions, which permits the brain to make structural changes. These changes lead to better understanding and more adaptive behaviors.
The brain is plastic – meaning that it’s constantly changing. Disconfirming experiences (experiences which do not match what was expected from the body) open our brain synapses to new learning. Brain circuits are open to being rewired when confronted with a disconfirming experience while the body is in a regulated emotional state. For example, say Billy has always experienced physical symptoms of anxiety when he’s talking about a traumatic experience. Using play, Billy can work through his traumatic experience without feeling the same symptoms of anxiety because he’s feeling different physical sensations through play. Billy’s brain can now rewire to have a new understanding of anxiety, especially with repeated sessions that cement his learning.
3. What can I expect when I bring my child into play therapy for the first time?
You and your child will meet with the play therapist to gather general information at an intake session. Play therapy sessions occur every week and are generally 60 minutes long. In session, your child will play and have fun. Not every session will be fun, but many will be. You will usually not be part of the session unless you want to consult with the therapist beforehand or afterwards.
4. How can I help my child be successful in play therapy?
Honor your child’s process in play therapy – in your child’s time. The process of therapy is generally slower for children than it is for adults. Play therapy is an evidence-based therapy, but like all therapy, kids often get worse before they get better. Encourage your child without putting pressure on how therapy is going. Asking them questions after their play therapy sessions can make children feel like they have to go to play therapy with the goal of “good” things to report to their parent(s), which disrupts the point of imaginative play as a stress-relieving activity.
Sessions can be triggering because your child will be processing previous traumatic experiences or working through current problems. Be sure to give your child some downtime to decompress after play therapy. Let them know that it’s okay for them to need space and provide time for distracting activities. While it may be frustrating to be hands-off about play therapy, it helps with the child’s healing process to experience play therapy without parental expectations.
5. What will the play therapist do to check in with me about my child’s progress?
The play therapist won’t be telling you everything that happens in the playroom to respect the child’s process. In other words, you won’t get a play-by-play description of everything your child did and said in the session because it wouldn’t really be helpful to your child or use your time effectively. However, play therapists will talk about themes & patterns seen in the play room – and use these themes and patterns to help you learn new ways of working through your child’s behavior, motivations, and emotions. For example, say that Lydia consistently creates play narratives about a little girl who feels bullied – the play therapist might work through why Lydia keeps bringing up this narrative. Then, they would communicate with you about this pattern, behaviors that might be arising out of it, and how to help Lydia.
Remember that you can always talk to your child’s therapist if you want additional information or aren’t sure how something is working. Play therapists are here to help and are happy to talk through the process with you! Meanwhile, check out the resources below if you want more info about play therapy:
Crenshaw, D. A., & Stewart, A. L. (2016). Play therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and
Kestly, T. A. (2014). The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Play: Brain-Building Interventions for
Kottman, T. (2011). Play Therapy: Basics and Beyond.
Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.