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How Does Play Therapy Work?
Very young children experience their world through Play. Various themes that indicate a child’s issues might be expressed through play, rather than words. For example, if young Jonathan gets the dinosaur and starts pushing a baby a baby dolls head into its, mouth, this could indicate that Jonathan is experiencing some distressing emotions about his new little sister. During this occurrence, while Jonathan is in play mode, the therapist might start talking to Jonathan about that connection; “I’m wondering if that dinosaur is hurting the baby because he is angry with the baby or maybe doesn’t like the baby and wants to get rid of it; and I’m also wondering if sometimes you feel upset about having a new baby sister.” Then, the child opens up and talks while continuing to play. The therapist is right there with the child on the floor or on the desk or wherever play takes place, helping the child to explore and work through that issue.
Here is another example of how play therapy works. Let’s say that little Jessica has a strong will and she is in a power struggle with her parents at home. She is angry about being told what to do. Well, in play therapy, Jessica might work out her issues as she gets to control the direction of play with the therapist. And, she does not have to clean up when she’s done. When Jessica wants to switch gears and play with something else, the therapist caringly looks into her eyes and says “yes, we can play with whatever you want to play with.” After a few sessions (depends on the child), Jessica starts to relax more and not be so demanding. This facilitates the therapist way into little Jessica’s heart and mind wherein Jessica will be more willing to explore her uncomfortable feelings relative to her parents, in addition to taking responsibility for her own behaviors. Jessica is taught coping skills to deal with uncomfortable feelings that the therapist helps her to identify, and she learns to make good choices to deter negative consequences that result from her inappropriate behaviors. This helps to release some of Jessica’s tension or anxiety from frequently getting into trouble, which in turn helps her to be a happier child.
How Can Parents Help?
Parents are told about the coping skills that the child has been taught, so that they can facilitate the child’s implementation of the coping skills at home. Parents are the eyes and ears for the therapist and should always inform the therapist of the child’s behavior or any concerns before the session. This facilitates the concerns being addressed during the session, that same day. Sometimes conversations take place in the presence of the child and sometimes not. This is up to the parent, as they are aware of the information that they want to share. Equally important, progress, even if very minimal, should always be shared in the child’s presence, so as not to only focus on the negative. This lets the child know that his/her parents are aware of the positive changes, and this awareness encourages more positive change. It is like a reward for the child when parents report the good that they notice. It is important to note, that depending upon the issues, sometimes parents participate in play sessions, as well. Family play therapy, whether it is a child and a parent or two or more siblings, works to enhance the relationship between those involved in the play.