Play Therapy for Children: Techniques, Toys, and Activities

What is play therapy? Could your child with ADHD, depression, or anxiety benefit from it?

ADHD parent practicing play therapy

What Is Play Therapy?

Play has long been used as an alternative therapy tool to treat symptoms of children with problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), clinical depression, and anxiety disorders. Child psychiatrists and psychologists have long believed that playtime can be used for children to connect, learn, provide reassurance, calm anxiety, and, perhaps, improve self-esteem. Very young children express themselves through play, when meaningful discourse is not possible. Conversely, play is an indirect way for therapists to recast children’s perceptions, cognitions, and behaviors. As Carol Brady, Ph.D., a child psychologist practicing in Houston, says: “Children communicate metaphorically through play. As a therapeutic tool, it’s like giving a sugary pill instead of a bitter one.”

How Play Therapy Will Help at Home

Playing with a young child is essential for her to feel connected, secure, and attached. At home, playful parenting defuses power struggles and turns tense situations into enjoyable ones.

“Kids with ADD/ADHD hear lots of ‘Nos’ and ‘Be carefuls,’ and ‘Don’t do thats,’” says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. “Constantly being told ‘no,’ or having to hold themselves back, puts a strain on kids. This causes their symptoms to get worse.”

Play is a child’s natural way of recovering from daily emotional upheavals. While Cohen agrees that there are teachable moments, playtime is more about relationship building. “No child, with or without ADD/ADHD, readily comes up to me and tells me what’s on his mind,” he says. “If we don’t allow children to make this connection through play, they connect in a way that is aggravating and intrusive, and then we get into punishment mode.” Sound familiar?

Children with ADD/ADHD pose special challenges for potentially playful parents. Because of executive function challenges, they often find it hard to follow rules and stay with a project from start to finish. What’s more, their style of playing may spin out of control. “Enough already,” the exasperated parent might say. “If you can’t play this game right, we’re not going to play at all.” But it’s important to let them play freely. Otherwise, they get the message, “You’re not normal. I don’t want to play with you.”

Play Therapy Techniques to Use at Home

Parents should follow their ADD/ADHD children’s lead. For the distractible child, who needs to expand his ability to stick with things, try engaging in narrative play with dolls or animal figures. “Let your child tell you what he wants to do,” says Cohen. “Let him be enthusiastic and not so worried about whether he is pleasing you.” It’s a balancing act. Your child should lead the way during playtime, and when he gets off track, gently redirect her back to what you were doing.

Next: 4 Play Therapy Techniques, Toys, and Activities

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TAGS: ADHD Toys and Games, ADHD Symptoms, Depression, ADHD and Anxiety, Behavior in ADHD Kids

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