Childhood can be a time of great wonder and joy. But for some, childhood is flooded with chaotic family or school situations that overwhelm and depress developing psyches.
Adults who are having trouble in their lives can often get help by speaking with a trained therapist. But young children can find it difficult and even scary talking to anyone about their intense emotions and deepest fears.
This is where play therapy comes in.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a therapeutic approach that helps children delve into and openly express repressed thoughts or emotions through play. Play becomes the child’s language, allowing the therapist to be a part of their world and establish a safe place to promote self expression, communicate feelings, and facilitate trauma resolution.
When is Play Therapy Used?
Children that have witnessed stressful or tragic events in their lives are candidates for play therapy. These events could be something like domestic violence in the home, abuse, experiencing a sudden loss of a loved one, experiencing an illness or serious injury themselves, parent divorce, or any other type of family crisis.
Play therapy has also been shown to help children dealing with anxiety and depression, as well as academic struggles such as learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder. It can also be helpful for children who fall on the Spectrum (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Play therapy can improve social and emotional skills, help children think in different ways, increase their language or communication skills, and expand the ways they play with toys and relate and connect with other people including their peers.
How Does Play Therapy Work, Exactly?
A parent will first take part in an interview with the therapist, who will collect some background information about the child. Such information is for the purposes of assessment and may include gathering information pertaining to observed behaviors, strengths, social and academic functioning, family functioning, any exposure to trauma, and any significant changes in the child’s life. The therapist will then most likely also conduct an initial interview with the child and parent, or child individually. This will help the therapist assess and determine the appropriate treatment plan moving forward.
During sessions in the playroom, the therapist will ask the child to play with specific toys that will best help him or her to express themselves. Other expressive tools such as drawing, painting, music, and/or dance may also be used to facilitate positive behavioral change and emotional expression.
Generally speaking, play therapy sessions occur weekly for an average of 26 weeks, and each of these weekly sessions typically last 30-50 minutes. It’s also important to note that while these are estimates, duration of services vary by each child and your therapist cannot predict how long treatment will take. We like to inform our clients that brief therapy or brief counseling services typically last 3-6 months on a weekly basis. However, there are many factors that play into this (i.e. child engagement, child/therapist therapeutic relationship, parent involvement, severity of symptoms etc) and it is not uncommon for treatment to go beyond 6 months into more long-term therapy.
Choosing a Play Therapist for Your Child
Not all therapists provide counseling services for children. Look for therapists that are specially trained in early childhood development, attachment, and the use of play or expressive arts as a form of communication. They should also have clinical background and experience in working with children in some capacity. For instance, through school-based services, crisis response, residential homes or behavioral services.
In addition to looking for the right training and cognitive tools, you’ll want to find a therapist that both you and your child feel comfortable with. Take some time to get on the phone with each potential therapist and ask some questions. Many therapists, including our team of therapists, offer free phone consultations and when needed, can also offer free in-person consults (15 minutes). This allows families and children to get a sense of the therapists’s energy and personality while also getting a sense of the physical environment of the office.
If you have a child you think may benefit from play therapy and would like to explore treatment options, please contact us. We’d more than happy to discuss how we can help.
Alyssa Najera, LCSW