Play therapy is primarily used to help children confront stressful situations head-on – sometimes, it is also used with adults. This method of treatment is used when children have a difficult time expressing themselves using words; although play therapy often relies on non-verbal communication, verbal communication is encouraged during sessions. Play therapy can be useful in situations where abuse (physical or sexual,) trauma, or other stressors are present in a child’s life. This form of therapy can be unobtrusive (where the therapist does not interject during play,) or directed, where a mental health professional assists the child in order to tackle whatever problems he/she is going through.
This form of therapy can help children express themselves – but how? Often, children either haven’t learned enough words to express their emotions, or they do not know how to convey to adults how they are honestly feeling. This is why non-verbal communication, such as which toys a child chooses to play with, is so important. During play therapy sessions, children use toys to express themselves; although this seems like a typical “play time” to them, close observation is used to determine if there is unresolved trauma that is causing the child pain or a stunt in their development. In play therapy, once the unresolved trauma is identified, trained therapists then direct the child’s play in order to help the child grow.
If children have suffered a traumatic event, they haven’t developed the part of their brain that knows how to successfully communicate the pain that they have been through – although children are born with millions and millions of neurons in the brain, these cells don’t know how to communicate with each other, which can be a significant problem when trauma or abuse is present. By using play, which is an integral part of a child’s development, the toys and games become the child’s words until they learn how to communicate their emotions successfully. Scientific studies also show a correlation between play and the missing connections between neurons that children need to grow.
Before change can be implemented, trained therapists first need to identify the trauma that is present in a child. Once this trauma or abuse is detected, therapists can then work with the children to help them sort through whatever they are going through. Although play therapy is often recommended by teachers who notice that a child is acting out, the type of trauma is often unknown; abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of trauma can come to light during play therapy sessions, and can help mental health professionals identify and treat whatever is causing an interruption in the child’s development.
In addition to identifying trauma or abuse, play therapy can also help facilitate positive communication and interpersonal techniques for children – whether this is learning how to share toys with others or express emotions in a non-violent way. Another method that may increase a child’s chances of success in play therapy is including essential adults in the child’s life in the sessions; this may help the child feel more at ease, and help adults learn some of the hidden messages that can be found in children’s play.
Typically, play therapy is administered in 30-45 minute sessions and is geared towards children who are 3-12 years old, although it can be beneficial for all ages. The therapist will meet with the parents or guardians of the child/children first to ascertain the reason for the therapy. In addition to meeting with the parents, sometimes the therapist will also meet with the child one-on-one to learn what type of toys would be best for the play therapy, depending on the child’s age and what sort of trauma they have been through, or what issue needs to be addressed.
During the session itself, the child is left alone with the therapist in a comfortable setting, although play therapy can also take place with small groups of children. While the child is playing with the selected toys, the therapist will carefully study the child’s behavior in order to get a glimpse into the child’s inner world, and queue-in on the non-verbal communication presented by the child. Common toys included in play therapy are building blocks, a dollhouse, Legos, a sandpit with action figures, and puppets. In some cases, a more artistic approach is taken and molding clay or painting can be implemented in the therapy.
Most of the time, the first session a child attends is used as an indicator of what toys they prefer to play with, in order to later adjust the toys selected by the therapist. For this reason, it is common for first sessions to give the child few restrictions when it comes to which toys they are allowed to play with.
The ways in which a child plays with his/her toys is indicative of what they are going through, which is why a therapist may narrow down the selection of toys in order to further determine what the child is trying to communicate inadvertently. In what is referred to as directed play therapy, the therapist guides the child’s play in order to help them sort through whatever issues they are dealing with. Where play therapy is mostly undisturbed by the therapist, directed play therapy helps a therapist work with a child who may not know how to express their emotions in a controlled environment.
Play therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach to your child’s mental health – some problems can be addressed with play therapy, but not all issues can be solved in this way. But in many cases, yes, play therapy works – by working with children to sort through their non-verbal communications, therapists can learn what is going through the child’s mind, and then direct play in a way that addresses those issues.
Play therapy can also be used in adults to help facilitate communication and cognitive thought. In adults, the topics differ from those covered in sessions aimed at children, such as growing older, money problems, illness, or accidents. Play therapy can be an incredibly effective path of treatment for children and adults alike.
As with all forms of treatment, however, you will need to experiment in order to see what works best for your child.
In older adults, play therapy can be beneficial for patients who are struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In pediatric patients, depression and anxiety, abuse, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities can all be addressed with play therapy. This form of treatment can also be beneficial for those who are on the Autism spectrum, as children and adults on the Autism spectrum may have difficulty expressing their emotions.
As with other forms of therapy, mental health professionals who specialize in this field hold at least a master’s degree in a mental health-related field. In addition to a background in mental health, therapists are also professionally formed by an institution called the Association for Play Therapy or APT. Play therapists spend countless hours training with children and adults in order to hone their skills – in order to become a Play Therapist Supervisor, therapists must complete 500 hours of play therapy.
Although this form of therapy can be incredibly beneficial for children, and in some cases adults, not every patient responds to play therapy in the same way. Every patient is different, and while some forms of therapy work for children, others may not. If your child is not responding to play therapy right away, be patient – sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of time. Therapists work with children to establish a rapport and sometimes that can take time, especially if the child has gone through trauma that has impacted his/her ability to communicate and trust adults or authority figures.
If therapy is stopped or interrupted, either because of concerns from the parent or an unrelated issue, this may impede any progress made by the child during treatment – for this reason, the 30-45 minute sessions are usually administered once a week, and during an initial consultation with the therapist he/she will prescribe a treatment period, which is generally 20 weeks’ worth of sessions.
As with any form of therapy, there are positive and negative attributes to this route of treatment. As a parent or guardian, it is up to you to decide whether play therapy will be an effective tool in your child’s life. Even if you are skeptical, scheduling one session with a play therapist may help you decide if it is the right move for you and your child.
Although play therapy is a relatively new form of treatment and was introduced during the 20th century, there are a number of people who played an important role in its evolution, such as Anna Freud, who argued that a strong rapport between a child and therapist would lead to an understanding of the child’s inner thoughts and feelings. Another critical player in this field was Roger Phillips, whose approach was crafted in the 1980’s and combined play therapy with a cognitive approach to treat children as young as two years old.
Sometimes it may seem difficult to narrow down your options and find a therapist who is right for you and your family – luckily, there are a number of resources available to find someone who works for your child. Your family doctor or pediatrician may have a list of play therapists in the area, and other parents who have children who have undergone play therapy may be able to suggest someone who is right for your son/daughter. Other resources, such as NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Health) offer tools online to help you find a mental health professional to suit your needs.
When looking for a practitioner of play therapy, make sure the person you wish to see holds a current state license and has been cleared by the national association APT. Make sure the person you are thinking about using has experience with the age group of your child and has all the tools necessary to help your child.
If you are not familiar with the inner workings of play therapy, be sure to ask your mental health professional how a typical session works. How long will the treatment last? Also be sure to ask for your mental health professional’s schedule, especially with regards to if a parent or guardian will need to be present for the sessions. Also, ask how many sessions are necessary to work through whatever your child may be going through.
Play therapy can be an incredibly useful tool in addressing the mental health concerns of your child. Especially geared towards children ages 3-12, this form of therapy can be used on patients who have yet to grow the connections in their brains that allow them to communicate their emotions and explain what is bothering them successfully. Although this form of therapy is geared primarily towards children, it can also be beneficial for adult patients, especially those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s or are on the Autism spectrum.
As a parent, it can be incredibly heart-wrenching and painful to know that your child is not doing well mentally but at the same time, they do not yet have the mental tools to express what is on their mind. With play therapy, toys are used to help children express their thoughts, fears, and traumas in a controlled, comfortable setting with a trained professional. For these reasons, play therapy can be an incredibly effective tool for parents and their children alike.
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