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Play Therapy:  Is It Right For My Family?

November 2020

“My child won’t listen! Everything is a battle, and he throws a massive tantrum every time he doesn’t get his way!”

“My child’s grandparent died a few months ago. I expected her to be sad, but she seems angry.”

“My child is so anxious about everything! School drop-offs are impossible, and he clings to my leg when I try to leave the house. Help!”

“My child was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and the psychologist suggested therapy.”


These are some of the issues that parents cite when calling me to seek help. But what does play therapy look like? And is it right for your child and family?


What Is Play Therapy?

Play Therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which play is used as a means of helping children express or communicate their feelings. It is conducted by a trained, licensed mental health professional. Therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings. In play therapy, toys are like the child's words and play is the child's language. Through play, therapists may help children learn more adaptive behaviors when there are emotional or social skills deficits. The positive relationship that develops between therapist and child during play therapy sessions can provide a corrective emotional experience necessary for healing. Play therapy may also be used to promote cognitive development and provide insight about and resolution of inner conflicts or dysfunctional thinking in the child.

Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist helps children to address and resolve their own problems. Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development.


Why Play in Therapy?

Play is vital to human happiness and well-being. Play is a fun, enjoyable activity that elevates our spirits and brightens our outlook on life. It expands self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization and self-efficacy. Play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects us to people in a positive way, stimulates creative thinking and exploration, regulates our emotions, and boosts our ego. In addition, play allows us to practice skills and roles needed for survival. Learning and development are best fostered through play.


How Does It Work?

Children are referred for play therapy to resolve their problems. Often, children have used up their own problem solving tools, and they misbehave, may act out at home, with friends, and at school. Play therapy allows trained mental health practitioners who specialize in play therapy, to assess and understand children's play. Further, play therapy is utilized to help children cope with difficult emotions and find solutions to problems. By confronting problems in the clinical Play Therapy setting, children find healthier solutions. Play therapy allows children to change the way they think about, feel toward, and resolve their concerns. Even the most troubling problems can be confronted in play therapy and lasting resolutions can be discovered, rehearsed, mastered and adapted into lifelong strategies.


Who Benefits?

Play Therapy is most appropriate for children ages 3 - 12 years old. The children who typically come to therapy have a variety of diagnoses: autism, ADHD, oppositional defiant and conduct disorders, anger management, crisis or trauma, grief and loss, divorce, and learning/social disabilities. Play therapy helps children:

  • Become more responsible for behaviors and develop more successful strategies.
  • Develop new and creative solutions to problems.
  • Develop respect and acceptance of self and others.
  • Learn to experience and express emotion.
  • Cultivate empathy and respect for thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Learn new social skills and relational skills with family.
  • Develop self-efficacy and thus a better assuredness about their abilities.

Are Parents Involved?

Families play an important role in children's healing processes. The interaction between children's problems and their families is always complex. Sometimes children develop problems as a way of signaling that there is something wrong in the family. Other times the entire family becomes distressed because the child's problems are so disruptive. In all cases, children and families heal faster when they work together.


The play therapist will make some decisions about how and when to involve some or all members of the family in the play therapy. At a minimum, the therapist will want to communicate regularly with the child's caretakers to develop a plan for resolving problems as they are identified and to monitor the progress of the treatment. Other options might include involving a) the parents or caretakers directly in the treatment by modifying how they interact with the child at home and b) the whole family in family play therapy. Whatever the level of involvement of the family members, they typically play an important role in the child's healing.

 © 2020 - 2021, Amy Weber LCSW, PLLC

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