Child (Play) & Family Therapy

Why play therapy?

Play is the native language of children. Play therapy develops and strengthens typical communication and learning styles of children. As a therapist engages a child in play, the child will feel safer to express struggles in their development when they do not have the spoken language tools to compose thoughts and feelings in ways adults communicate. By using the natural tendency children have to play as a way to explore a world they don’t understand, they act out their internal questions and assumptions, seeking feedback from others around them. Toys and playing out fantasy are to children what words are to adults.

girl and cat peeking
Is it safe to come out and play?
  • When working with children 10 and younger, I recognize that play is the language children use to communicate most effectively. I use the tenets of Child Play Therapy in the larger context of family therapy to strengthen parents’ connections to their children so healthy and age-appropriate communication ties can be created and nurtured long after the therapy process has ended.

  • Sometimes parents have forgotten how to play themselves or perhaps, never learned. I make an effort to include playful activities in deliberate attempts to rebuild parents’ connections to their own states of innocence and a time when they may have felt as their children feel now.

  • Through play therapy activities, I help children develop more adaptive behaviors, coping and interaction skills, improve self-value and knowledge, and to find hope in their current situations.

  • Research supports the success of play therapy with a wide range of issues including: social skills issues, trauma, anxiety, chronic illness, parent death or illness (grief), dealing with divorce, typical life transitions, academic struggles, abuse, domestic aggression or violence and natural disasters. When possible, I will involve members of the family in play therapy activities to enhance the engaging possibilities offered by play tasks.

  • Not all family therapy includes elements of play. If there are no children under the age of 12 in the family, my methods may not include play tasks. I may, instead, offer opportunities to “shake things up” in the dynamics of the family to shift roles or expectations of family behavior in order to introduce new elements of fun or fresh perspectives for positive change. Growth depends upon openness to change, and always, change causes change.

  • Parents who bring their children to therapy expecting a “quick fix” will be disappointed. Often the dynamic between family members may be causing the stress felt by both parents and children. To a systemic therapist, the key is never just one person making a change, but all members of a system finding new ways to act/react in relationship to one another. Parents are often a huge part of their children’s healing—relational patterns may need adjusting.

  • Because children operate at a level most adults have forgotten how to access, many mental health providers prefer not to work with children alone, and are even apprehensive about having a young child join the family therapy session. Some will work with children, but they make a point of keeping the parent on the “outside”of the developing relationship between themselves and the child-client. I fit neither of those extremes. I believe my ultimate purpose is to bring the family to the point where they don’t need me anymore. I am trying to do myself out of a job.

  • While I will see children as young as three (3) alone for a number of shorter sessions, within the context of the child’s family to track the attachment ties, interaction patterns, and expectations of the parent for the child, it’s not the long-term strategy. Children do not exist in a vacuum apart from the context producing both the child and the behaviors. To understand the child’s experience, I must view the child within his/her family context. This means I will need to observe each attachment figure interacting with the child and I likely will request to spend some clinical time within the family home–a place all children should feel safe, connected, respected and valuable.

  • I should not, however, see a child “in charge” of the family, with everyone waiting on the child hand and foot or tiptoeing around to avoid tantrums or distress. That kind of family structure is producing the problems and can be addressed in a relatively short period of time, if all adults are cooperative and practicing strategies as suggested. Structural work can be both quick and rewarding, yet it can also be distressing to the adults caught in the cycle of appeasement. Largely, issues with children’s behaviors are related to weak boundaries and mixed messages. There may also be an adult relational fault-line running down the middle of the family unit. It usually doesn’t take long to locate it–fixing it is quite another matter.
one way or another way
one way or another…change comes

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