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How Does Play Therapy Work?

A dad I know asked me about play therapy the other day. Does it really work? How does it work? How can play be therapy?

“Oh,” I said, “Good Question!” ;^)

Children aren’t cognitively or verbally able to process everything that happens to them in their lives (shoot, neither am I!) nor do they have the cognitive or linguistic development for insight-oriented talk therapy (what most adults are doing in their individual therapy sessions). Therefore, children find healing and growth some other way. Enter play therapy.

Play therapy does work, and my favorite explanation of how play therapy works is this: it gives the child the opportunity to re-experience and/or communicate about something from their normal life, in a context that is (a) safe, (b) under their control, and (c) associated with different emotions. There’s some fancy neurological stuff going on when this happens, but the upshot is that it allows the child to re-experience something in a way that heals.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example… Little Johnny’s father drinks beer every night and basically ignores his family when he drinks. Johnny comes to my office one day and selects the family dolls. He finds my miniature beer cans (yes, I really do have miniature beer cans) and puts one in the father doll’s hands. Then he has the child doll take the beer can from the father and hide it. Do you see what’s going on here? In Johnny’s real life, he might want to take the beer from his father, but he cannot safely do so. In the play therapy setting, he can pretend to do the thing he wants to do, and he can feel control over the whole situation in a way he never can in real life. The other major component of how this works is that while he is re-experiencing this, his brain is firing up the same neural connections that fire up in real life-but this time Johnny is in a different emotional state. He’s calmer and feeling less of whatever uncomfortable emotions he typically feels when his father drinks-and this is very healing.

Want a real-life example? From my own life, of course, I can’t share real client stories. My toddler daughter has curly hair. Our nightly hair-brushing is frequently an unpleasant chore (and trust me, I’ve tried every product/trick/approach known to mama.) But the upshot is that sometimes she fusses–a lot.  Some time ago, I gave her the brush and let her brush my hair. She loved this and we now do it regularly. When she brushes my hair, she grins and laughs and says: “Mama: CRY!” So I whimper and cry and say all of the phrases she usually says to me when I brush her hair, all to her great delight. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it the first few times we did that, but eventually I caught on-she’s creating her own little play therapy routine. Now every time we play that game, although I’m “crying” on the outside, I’m smiling inside… play therapy works! 

2 Comments on “How Does Play Therapy Work?

  1. My daughter and her family experienced a house fire in Oct. of 2006 and had to live in 3 different houses before they were finally able to move back into their home 13 mos. later. Our 6-year old grandson began acting out in school, having tantrums and melt-downs and even bathroom issues. He has been working with to a therapist using “play therapy.” He does seem a little better but the therapist does not offer any feedback as to goals and/or strategies for handling him at home. I’m thinking this may be part of the therapy, working exclusively with the child. Is it?

  2. I very firmly believe that my work as a play therapist is done **in partnership** with the parents. Not every therapist has this perspective, but parents have every right to ask questions of (any) provider. When I do play therapy with a child, I strongly encourage parents to schedule a session with me (and not the child) every 6 weeks or so to talk about what play therapy is, how it works, how you can see it working, what I as the therapist can see about the child, what they as the parents can see, what any of us can do to help the child better, any ideas I have about inner conflicts/problems, common themes/concerns, progress towards goals, etc. These sessions are VERY helpful to the family, and also VERY helpful (although indirectly) to the child as well. Parents often tell me that they understand what’s going on (and therefore value it and can support it) far better after each one. I also feel like I’m usually better able to help the child after those grownups-only sessions, too.
    So, I encourage you/your daughter to initiate a conversation with the therapist about your/her desire for more information/communication. Two way communication is a very important part of any therapeutic relationship!
    take care, and thanks for your comment.
    Katie