Parents often feel curiosity and confusion about the play therapy process. If you’ve been to therapy as an adult, you may assume your child’s session will be similar – and that talking with kids is the best or only way to help them heal, grow, and change. After all, children play all the time – so how exactly is using play in therapy helpful?
Throughout our work together, I provide ongoing education to parents about the play therapy process and how it can be beneficial for their child. However, you may want to know more about play therapy before getting started – to orient to the process, and to determine if it’s right for you and your child. Below, you’ll find a series of frequently asked questions that can help you determine if play therapy may be a good fit for your family.
What is play therapy?
Play therapy is a research-supported approach that helps children identify, express, and manage emotions; build autonomy and self-responsibility for behaviors; and learn regulation, problem-solving, and relational skills. Play therapy allows children to use their natural language – play! – to process and integrate challenging experiences and emotions that may seem too big, confusing, or scary to talk about. Throughout the play therapy process, children use toys, art, games, storytelling, or other means to explore, grow, and heal their perceptions of themselves and their world.
How is play therapy different from playing with toys at home?
While play in the “real world” often involves certain requirements and expectations, play therapy can feel more freeing and empowering for the child. During our sessions, I join the child in their inner world and support them in feeling accepted, known, and validated. As they become more comfortable being authentic, they begin to process challenges they may otherwise struggle to explore or share with others.
As a Certified Synergetic Play TherapistTM, I am specially trained to facilitate play in a way that increases both the child’s awareness of their inner experience and their ability to regulate through nervous system activation. Neuroscience research has shown that we must move toward challenging internal states in order to create new neural pathways that allow us to change, grow, and heal. In our play therapy sessions, I support the child in moving toward uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and somatic sensations, which allows the child to integrate and experience empowerment over perceived challenges. During this process, the child also learns skills for attuning to their authentic self, identifying and expressing emotions in a healthy way, and building trust in their capacity to manage similar challenges in the future. Learn more about Synergetic Play Therapy®.
How much will you share with me about my child’s sessions?
Every child is unique, and each child will approach play therapy differently. At the beginning of our work together, I typically spend a few sessions with the child before scheduling a parent session where we’ll further discuss the process. This allows me to get to know your child and gather information about how they may navigate their play therapy journey.
During parent sessions and updates, I may talk with you about what we’re working on and general themes that are showing up in your child’s play. However, I won’t share details about what the child specifically says or does, as this can impact the child’s comfort in expressing themselves freely and authentically in future sessions, which is a vital part of the process.
How will we know play therapy is working?
As a play therapist, my goal is not to “fix” a child’s behaviors. Instead, I focus on supporting the child in moving toward and integrating underlying challenges that may be negatively impacting their perceptions of themselves and their world – which, in turn, may be negatively impacting their behaviors and wellbeing.
While it’s understandable to want your child’s struggles and symptoms to improve as soon as possible, it can take time for them to learn new coping strategies, create new neural pathways, and develop new perspectives. However, we can still measure effectiveness and progress. We’ll know play therapy is helping if the child is improving related to the goals set at the beginning of therapy – or, more generally, if the child is demonstrating improved self-awareness, self- expression, emotion regulation, and self-responsibility outside the playroom.
It’s also important to consider the big picture. When parents aren’t noticing progress, I work with them to explore possible contributing factors. For example, what are the potential barriers to improvement, such as a new or ongoing life stressor? Are there certain sensory needs that must be supported as a part of the play therapy process? Do the child’s parents need their own support in order to provide coregulation to the child at home? It’s important to remember that the child is part of a family system, and there are ways you can support your child at home that impact your child’s progress (more about this later).
What else would be helpful to know?
Depending on the child and the circumstances, certain behaviors or symptoms may appear to get worse before they improve. From a play therapy perspective, this can actually be encouraging because it’s a sign that the child is exploring and working through their perceived challenges in the playroom. It’s likely the child is experiencing some big emotions related to their work in therapy, and they may also be practicing applying skills they’ve learned in sessions to the real world… and like any time we try doing things differently, this can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and overwhelming!
At certain stages of play therapy, your child may also express reluctance about attending sessions. This can be a typical part of the process, and often happens before the child begins doing deeper work in therapy. This makes sense – as humans, we sometimes try to avoid what challenges us, no matter our age! Remember that even though play can be naturally enjoyable for kids, therapy is hard work for them – just like it is for adults – and it won’t always feel fun.
When a child is hesitant to attend, I encourage parents to validate that sometimes therapy feels hard and share their confidence in their child’s ability to do hard things.
What can I do to support my child in the therapy process?
It’s important to make your child’s therapy a priority. Play therapy is a long-term, relational approach, and progress is more likely with consistent weekly sessions. This helps build rapport and safety in the therapeutic relationship, while giving your child the opportunity to regularly practice new skills and build new neural patterns. Therapy becomes your child’s special play time, and predictability is important to help your child feel secure.
It’s also important to respect your child’s confidentiality and allow them to share (or not share) whatever they choose. If you ask what your child did in play therapy, they will likely respond with some version of, “I played,” and this probably won’t provide you with the information you’re seeking, anyway. If you’re finding that you’re feeling curious, impatient, confused, or skeptical of the process, it might be time to schedule a parent session so we can further explore your questions and concerns.
For the child to progress through the process, they must feel safe being themselves and expressing themselves authentically in session. If your child offers information about what they said and did during therapy, it’s important to avoid offering opinions about what they share with you, which can inadvertently shame the child for their natural expression or for not doing therapy the “right” way. Instead, you can show your interest by reflecting back to them what they’ve told you – for example, “You really enjoyed that,” or “That seemed strange to you,” or “You seem proud of that.”
Another way you can support your child through the process is by attending regular parent sessions. When parents are open to doing their own work and trying new skills, it can shift the family system to support the child in a more sustainable way. Parent sessions also allow us to work through any potential challenges that arise and celebrate small steps of empowerment as your child works toward growth, healing, and embodying their authentic self.