Many times when people hear I am a play therapist the first thing they say is “oh, how fun!” The word fun doesn’t quite explain what happens in a play therapy setting. Common occurrences that a play therapist has to deal with in a session include themes around sexual and physical abuse, as well as violence and grief. Sounds fun right? Play therapy should be called interactive therapy because it is using toys, sand, art, movement or any other nonverbal techniques to process through emotional, behavioral or cognitive issues the child is dealing with. As a Play Therapist I use indirect (child lead therapy) or directed (therapist lead therapy) techniques with the child depending on their cognitive level, presenting issues, and assessment of the behaviors I have experienced in their sessions.
A child is often brought to therapy when they start exhibiting behaviors at home, school or the community. These behaviors might include but are not limited to aggression, poor social skills, regression in hygiene or toileting, sexualized behaviors, clinginess or meltdowns and could be signs of mental health issues. The important thing to understand is a parent knows their child best so if they are seeing new behaviors that are causing concerns it might be time to seek out professional help. A child developmentally may not be able to vocalize what is bothering them but their behaviors are how they are telling you that something isn’t right.
Play therapy can be helpful for a child because it allows them a safe place and safe person to work through their problems. The children I work with range from dealing with depression, anxiety symptoms, sexual abuse, to children who have lost a parent to suicide, or other traumas. Often parents will be concerned how “just playing” helps the child. Just as an adult comes to therapy to work on issues a child is coming to therapy for issues they need to process through and gain resolution they use the toys or other mediums to talk out their issues. Play therapists are trained to help guide and give a voice to the issues the child is dealing with. I would also encourage parents to inquire about the therapy the therapist will be doing with their child because there is more to play therapy then playing a game together. Parent involvement in the therapy process is crucial to helping the child gain resolution and may require monthly parenting meetings of all parents in the child’s life.
I love what I do, but also find it very physically and emotionally exhausting at times. Who needs to work out when you have nonstop sword fights? There are times that my work is fun and I get to laugh a lot, but the reality is the underlying issues on why that child is coming to therapy isn’t fun, but the right therapeutic approach could make all the difference.