What Is Play Therapy and How Can It Help My Child?

How can playing with games and toys help my child's mental health? Am I paying for a glorified babysitter? Why does my child say therapy is fun? 

If you are a parent who has looked for a therapist for your child, you might have thought of one or all of these questions. Play therapy and "talk therapy" are very different. The typical "talk therapy" is what we usually think about when we imagine a therapist sitting with a client on two couches faces each other. Talk therapy has been shown to benefit adolescents and adults greatly. However, talk therapy does not work with children. Children express themselves through play. Play is your child's language.

Have you ever tried to ask your child, "Why did you do that? How are you feeling? Why are you crying? Tell me how to help you."? An adolescent or adult would be able to answer these questions. However, children are not able to verbally express themselves properly. That is where play comes in. A therapist, who is trained in play therapy, is able to explore these questions with a child through games, art, activities, and toys. 

One example of how play therapy could benefit a child would be for a 6-year-old child to come in whose parents are going through a divorce. Through play, the clinician can assess how the child is coping with the divorce. The clinician might have the child draw their family members in the colors that represent their emotional relationships. The clinician might assess the child's frustration tolerance by playing a game with the child and seeing how the child copes with losing. The clinician could then assist the child by teaching coping skills for difficult times. 

While it is important that a consent with the parent(s) or legal guardian(s) is signed at the beginning of treatment with a minor, sessions remain confidential. The play room becomes a safe space for the child to express themselves with no judgement. The child should not be nervous that what they do during their play is brought back to their parents. If there are ever any safety issues, this will be brought back to the parents immediately. Otherwise, the content of sessions will remain confidential. 

During treatment, it is important to get feedback from parents to see how the child is progressing at home. This might include some parenting sessions to discuss skills they can use while at home with the child. This is a time for parents to feel supported throughout their child's treatment. 

If you decide your child is in need of therapy, it is best to seek help as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the bigger problems become with children. If you seek out a therapist for your child who does not use play at all then this is not evidenced-based practice for children. It is important that your child is able to express themselves through their language (play). 



Courtney Glashow, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in Jersey City, New Jersey. She specializes in children and adolescent issues, and young adult counseling.


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