Please take a moment to read these five main points regarding the theory of child-centered play and what to expect before your child begins.
1. It's Not Just Play-Time
Your child may report that he or she just played and did artwork. This does NOT mean that the therapy session was simply “play-time.” While play therapy is fun for the child involved, it also involves “work.” However, the work isn’t like schoolwork. They use the toys to process and work through whatever it is they are struggling with utilizing symbolism, metaphors and analogies to express themselves accurately. A child might use an egg to represent feeling breakable, dragons may represent their anger (or an annoying sibling), and fences or barriers may be a child’s way of feeling trapped or contained. Toys give children the freedom to express themselves in a way that makes sense to them when words just don’t seem to fit right. Play Therapy uses this form of expression to facilitate such things as healing, growth, and development.
2. It's Not a Quick-Fix
Therapy with children does not work overnight. One of the most important aspects of play therapy is the relationship between the child and therapist. Like any therapeutic relationship, trust, safety and security are vital. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a sense of safety and security is second only to food and shelter. Therefore, when children enter the play therapy room, they won’t find a counselor sitting in a grown up chair looking down at them asking questions, like most other adults they know. Instead, they will see their counselor on the floor with toys and objects that speak their language. Rather than being told what to do and given a lot of rules to follow, they will be given the freedom to explore and decide how they want to spend their time. The first few play sessions with a child center around building trust and safety rather than jumping straight to the problem at hand. Once the rapport is built however, a child feels safe enough to begin diving into what has brought him/her to therapy. Then the next phase of therapy begins.
3. Let Your Child Lead
Please do not ask your child what he did during a play therapy session. He will offer the information he wants you to know. Most of the therapeutic process is subconscious, and it may confuse your child by asking probing questions. The purpose of play therapy, especially with younger children, is not to expect the child to verbalize the therapeutic process, but instead for you to see decreased symptoms and improved functioning in significant areas of his or her life over time.
4. Refrain From Giving Updates
Your therapist will come to meet you and your child in the waiting room, then take the child into the therapy room. Please do not update your therapist about your child in the waiting room with your child present. It is important that your child feel like the therapy time is his or hers. However, it is appropriate for you to leave me a confidential voicemail, send an email, or hand me a brief note at the beginning of session describing concerns, improvements, etc. If you begin to tell me an update, I will kindly remind you that the therapy time is for your child and that we can schedule a time to meet individually. Depending on the case, I usually meet with parents individually and/or with the child around every 4th session or so. Please let me know if something has come up and we can schedule a session before that.
5. Trust the Power of Play
Children often come into play therapy defeated, confused, overwhelmed, and feeling as though their world is out of control. However, once a child enters play therapy and realizes that it is a world they can understand and communicate in, they often visibly relax. Allowing children this freedom to explore what is bothering them is healing in and of itself. Children heal from a nasty divorce, learn to calm themselves before they explode into a temper tantrum, and develop a high level of confidence to overcome struggles with anxiety, depression, or bullying. They move from self-loathing to self-acceptance and high self-esteem. That is the power of play.
Chantal D. Hayes, MA, LCMHC
Chantal D. Hayes