Children Playing with Blocks During Play Therapy
 
Featured in: Children's Health  |  August 18, 2016

Play Therapy: Serious Fun

Play therapy provides a window into an unhappy child’s inner world.

By Martha Spizziri   |   Edited by Brian Levine and Christie Bacchioni

Sigmund Freud is credited with being the first to use play in understanding child psychology.  It’s a method that stuck.  Today, mental health professionals use play therapy as an effective way to help children cope with anxiety and depression and deal with traumatic experiences.  As we mentioned in a previous blog, play is vital to a child’s development, which is why incorporating play into therapy makes so much sense.

Play Therapy is Healing 

Let’s take Sophie’s story, for example.

When Sophie was 6 years old, she started to get anxious whenever she was left alone in a room.  Her anxiety started in mid-August and by late September it still had not abated, and in fact had gotten worse and carried over to school.  

Sophie’s mother, Amy, took her in for a checkup where the doctor referred them to a therapist. At this point, Sophie’s mother decided it wasn’t going to get better on its own and even if it did, what would be the risking in getting help?  

Amy took Sophie to see Dr. Stephanie Pratola, PhD, a registered play therapist based in Salem, Virginia.  Dr. Pratola spoke with Sophie and then encouraged her to play in a room alone for as long as she could, while she and Sophie’s mother observed from a video camera.

During the first visit, Sophie could only play alone for 30 seconds, but within 2 months of regular visits, Sophie was able to understand that she could control her fears and could sit alone in a room without any anxiety.  

Why it Works with Children of all Ages

Toys are very safe and manageable, making it easier for kids to approach difficult feelings.

Children as young as 2 and as old as 18 years of age can benefit from play therapy.  

Dr. Pratola points out that kids “are always expressing something through their play.”  It’s their primary language.  So watching a child play can help a therapist get to the root of the problem much more easily than by asking questions, when a kid is much more likely to be guarded and quiet. 

“Toys are very safe and manageable,” notes Dr. Pratola. That makes it easier for kids to approach difficult feelings. It puts them in a situation where they have complete control and can help them verbalize their problems.

The experience Sophie had with play therapy supports that notion. “It was comfortable and familiar to Sophie,” says her mother. “When she was 6, she wasn’t able to articulate what she felt and was able to express it much better through play.”

What Does Play Therapy Help With?

Play therapy is helpful for just about any childhood problem, including:

  • Separation anxiety
  • Behavioral problems such as aggression or withdrawal
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Reading difficulties
  • Dealing with bullies
  • Adjusting to divorce or adoption
  • Coping with trauma such as abuse, illness, death of a parent, surviving a car accident or natural disaster

Children Are Willing to Go Back

Play therapy was so helpful for Sophie that she was willing to go back to therapy at age 9, when she became worried that her parents might abandon her. In these sessions, Dr. Pratola had Sophie choose dolls representing herself, her mother, and her own fear (which she called Mr. Meany).

The therapist and Sophie would then replay actual events using the dolls, such as the time Sophie became anxious when her mother went out to the car to retrieve an item around Sophie’s bedtime.

Amy says, “Dr. Pratola had us replay the scenario using the dolls and then redo it in a more effective way, with Sophie talking back to Mr. Meany—and eventually learning to get the better of him.”

Help for Families

Play therapy can also be used in the context of family therapy. Families often come in feeling defeated, says Dr. Pratola. “The child is having a problem and the heaviness is impacting the whole family.” Play helps family members interact in a lighter way. “It seems to work really, really well,” she notes.

Filial therapy, when therapists train parents in therapeutic play to use at home with their kids, can be a very powerful approach.  “It affects a variety of problems and it tends to have long-lasting effects,” says Dr. Pratola.

In conclusion, children seem to love play therapy because it has an element of fun and they do not feel guarded.  They are much more likely to consider counseling as adults because they had a good experience with therapy when they were younger.

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