Play is the “language of childhood.” Watch a child play, and you’ll see her express a variety of emotions, acting out fanciful scenarios. You almost see her “trying on” different kinds of expression.
Play therapy taps into this intuitive childhood language, helping children develop greater self-esteem. It empowers them to cope with their problems — from ADHD challenges to traumatic events to damaged relationships. When parents play along, the parent-child bond improves.
For my seven-year-old daughter and me, play therapy healed our relationship. When she was three, she and I started butting heads, and it got worse over time. I couldn’t understand why this pint-sized individual drove me to madness. However, once she was diagnosed with ADHD, her behaviors — impulsivity, incessant arguing, temper tantrums — started to make sense. I understood why my firm approach to her misbehaviors made things worse.
Even with this new understanding, we needed something else to improve our relationship — and we found it in play therapy. When I met play therapist Pam Mitchell, LCSW, in Salt Lake City, I expected her to “fix” my child. Several sessions later, we had something more profound — a healed relationship and the tools to help us keep it that way.
The ABCs of Play Therapy
Play therapy is founded on the premise that play is a natural way for a child to express herself. If play is a child’s language, toys are her words. Recent research by the UK Society for Play and Creative Arts Therapies suggests that 71 percent of children who participate in play therapy show a positive change. Another study, a meta-analysis of 93 studies on play therapy, showed that the approach is an effective intervention for a range of children’s problems. What’s more, research indicates that children whose parents practice play therapy at home, in addition to working with a therapist, derive more benefits than those who “play” with a therapist alone.
An astute play therapist observes and interacts with a child as he plays, picking up on social cues and mirroring the child’s emotions. The therapist helps a child express himself when he doesn’t know how to articulate what’s troubling him. Play therapy does for children what a good, long talk with a therapist or trusted friend does for adults. A child uses his imagination to achieve the outcomes that we get through talking.
As we watch our children play, we have a front-row seat to their inner thoughts, struggles, motivations, and feelings. When we learn their “language,” we can relate to our children on a deeper, more empathetic level.