Play therapy was developed during the 1920's by H. Von Hug-Hellmuth, Anna Freud, and Melanie Klein. While their approaches differed, they all recognized that children's play has meaning and can be a valuable tool for communicating with children. Play Therapy has evolved over the years, but the basic concepts remain the same.
For children, play is serious business. It is the way they learn about the world. Everyone has played "Drop the Toy" with a baby, where the baby drops a toy, the adult picks up the toy and returns it to the baby only to have the baby drop it again, and again, and again...The baby is learning about gravity, and about how to engage others in a social interaction. In addition to its educational function, play is important in a child's emotional development. Because of their limited experience, it is easy for children to misunderstand complicated situations, such as divorce, illness, or death. For example, it is common for children of divorced parents to feel that if they had only behaved better, their parents would still be together. Misunderstanding how the world works can cause confusion and turbulent emotions in a child. Some children also become stuck in normal developmental stages and are unable to move forward. Young children may not have the language skills to talk about problems and feelings; however, they naturally use play to tell us how they feel and try out solutions. Play therapists are trained to recognize themes and patterns and what they mean in children's play. The responses of the therapist help the child recognize troublesome thoughts and feelings, and develop better coping skills.
Therapy may take from a few months to more than a year, depending on how quickly the child responds. The work generally takes place in stages: The first part of treatment involves creating a good working relationship between the child and the therapist, and between the therapist and the parents. Some children become attached to the therapist quickly, and others take time to develop a trusting relationship. When children develop positive feelings for the therapist it can be difficult for the parents, particularly when the children are misbehaving at home. Parents need to remember that this attachment to the therapist is temporary and necessary to the child's recovery. No one is as important to a child as his or her parents. For this reason, it is vital that the parents and therapist work together. Regular meetings between the therapist and the parents are usually part of the child's treatment. These meetings inform the therapist about the child's behavior at home and significant events in the life of the child. In addition, the parents and therapist can work together to develop strategies to help the child at home.
The next stage of the therapy helps the child discover which feelings and behaviors are causing difficulty for the child, and uncovering the sources of these feelings and behaviors. Once problems have been understood and explored, the child can develop a more clear and accurate view of the world.
A period of working through the feelings follows, where the child tries out various scenarios in play until the troublesome emotions have been mastered and no longer control the child's behavior. At this point, the child and therapist can work on strengthening coping skills to deal with negative feelings in the future. This is the time when symptoms start to disappear and parents may think about ending therapy; however, it is best to allow some time for the child to practice new skills before beginning the last stage of therapy.
The final stage involves saying goodbye to the therapist. This typically takes a few weeks so the child can deal with any feelings about ending the relationship with the therapist. Sometimes symptoms return during this phase, but usually only briefly. Some children need to return to therapy during difficult times in
their lives and others do not.
Bringing a child to a mental health professional is a difficult step for parents; however, if children are having problems, it is better to tackle them early before they become ingrained. It may help to know that most children like play therapy, and many are relieved that their parents are getting them the help they need. Working with a qualified play therapist can make a big difference in the life of a child and his or her parents.
written by Libby Robbins, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.