What Is Play Therapy and Can It Help Your Child?

When adults go to therapy, they talk about their problems with a therapist in order to better understand themselves and the problems they face. The relationship and trust built between a client and his or her therapist using verbal communication are key ingredients in the healing process for adults in therapy.

However, unlike adults, children are often not emotionally or developmentally mature enough to express their feelings accurately through speech. For children, talking is one of the most difficult and least effective therapeutic techniques.

Play therapy is a unique psychotherapeutic practice that combines a child’s natural ability to play with therapeutic counseling, and it has been well researched and validated countless times over the past several decades.

Given the cost of therapy, it is not uncommon for parents to be concerned when they learn that therapy with their child is going to involve toys and other items readily found around the house. Why should parents pay for a therapist to play with their child?

Play therapy is much more than using play to lift the spirits of troubled children by encouraging them to do what they enjoy doing most. While play itself can yield therapeutic results, play therapy uses drawing, art, clay, sand and sand tray, storytelling, puppetry, and dolls or other figures to encourage a child to express his or her feelings, experiences, and cognitive functioning.

As with adults, a child therapist’s role is to offer unconditional support and a safe environment in which to heal and grow. However, in play therapy, the therapist is also responsible for providing appropriate toys and play materials that, in effect, become the child’s words as play becomes the child’s language.

What are the benefits of play therapy?

Parents seek the help of a professional therapist for the children for a multitude of reasons, but it is often to help children who are struggling with emotional or behavioral difficulties.

Play therapy uses the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships with the world around them to help them:

  • Deal with parental conflict, separation, or divorce;
  • Express their feelings and effectively communicate with others;
  • Overcome traumatic experiences (including sexual, physical or emotional abuse);
  • Develop problem-solving and social skills;
  • Manage their emotional responses, including dealing with anger management problems or other behavior issues;
  • Resolve issues of grieving and loss, such as the illness or death of a loved one; and
  • Effectively cope with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD).

Play therapy provides children emotional distance from the problems they’re experiencing and allows them to express their thoughts and feelings in a manner appropriate to their development.

Play therapy can also provide insight and resolution of a child’s inner conflicts or dysfunctional thinking, promote cognitive development, and help children learn more adaptive behaviors in order to deal with the emotional or social difficulties they’re likely to face.

Whenever possible, therapy must be done in a client’s natural language, and a child’s natural language is play. Since children are largely incapable of expressing the sophisticated feelings they experience using language, play allows a child to express complicated, or even repressed, feelings in a safe, non-threatening way. Additionally, play therapy allows therapists to teach a child skills without the child feeling lectured to, criticized, or blamed.

While play therapy is primarily used to help children, play therapy has been shown to work equally well for people of all ages who have difficulty expressing themselves in words, and is commonly used with adults as well as children and adolescents.

How can you find a play therapist that’s right for your child?

To find a play therapist that’s right for your child, you can start your search by asking your physician, clergy or other professional service providers you trust for referrals.

You may also ask trusted friends or family members, or you can search the Internet for play therapists near you. Just keep in mind, a good ad or Web page doesn’t make a play therapist qualified or experienced.

Not all mental health professionals have received the training necessary to work with children effectively. Because play therapists work differently with children, it is very important that you choose a play therapist well-trained in play therapy and in working with children.

When selecting a therapist for your child, be sure to ask the therapist about his or her education and training, including specific training using play therapy with children. You may also want to check with the Association for Play Therapy to find out if a therapist has completed their registration program, which documents the play therapy education and training that a therapist has completed.

As with choosing any service provider, doing some homework and making an informed decision about whom to work with your child will increase the likelihood that play therapy will meet your child’s needs.

Playing is not only fun, it sparks creativity and is critical to our children’s healthy development. Play is an enjoyable activity that elevates the spirits and brightens the outlook of people of all ages. Play also helps to expand children’s self-expression, self-knowledge and self-actualization. Additionally, play can relieve feelings of stress and boredom, connect us to people in positive ways, encourage exploration, regulate our emotions and boost our ego.

But, perhaps most importantly, play allows children to practice in a safe environment those skills and roles that they will need for survival as they mature. Thus, much of children’s learning and development is best fostered through play.

Deciding to seek professional counseling for your child’s problems and selecting a therapist for your child to work with are important and courageous steps towards your child’s future happiness and well-being. Equally important is your commitment to achieving these goals through the therapeutic process. Psychotherapy can be difficult work, but the rewards for your child and your family are often more than believed possible.

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For more information contact:

Haleh Rambod, MFT – Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
(209) 850-9023

2930 Geer Road, #115-D, Turlock, CA 95382

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