Many people hear the words 'play therapy' and make the assumption that it is simply a time for children to 'play'. They are correct in one way that it is play, but it is so much more than that. There are many different types of play. 'Play' happens with your friends, for enjoyment, for fun. 'Play therapy' adds a different layer to the play, for which you need to be a trained professional, who understands the importance of play, but can turn it into therapy.
The therapist sets up a trusting, safe place that a child visits at the same time and same place each week. This will help the child to find the resilience that is needed to help him/her come through whatever problems he/she is facing at that time. I am always very keen to point out, a therapist cannot take away the pain or problems the child is suffering from, be this a bereavement, a parental separation, social issues, medical conditions such as ADHD and autism, for example, but he/she can help them to cope with what they are going through and help provide them with resilience and strength to help them face their life more positively.
Over the last few years mental health in general is being recognised as an area of health that has been overlooked for both adults and children. Stress is a huge problem in our busy society, with a lack of sleep also having a impact on many adults and children too. 1 in 10 children are classed as having a mental health problem and more money is starting to be redirected to this health area to help both adults and children alike.
Play therapy is great for children, as some children don't recognise that they are suffering or simply do not want to deal with the problems that they are facing. It is easier to put on a brave face and face the world head on rather than listen to your emotions. Having worked with children who are at risk of exclusion from school, hitting adults and children, refusing to follow boundaries and rules, that others are giving up on, I can assure you that play therapy can begin to turn a child's life around. It doesn't matter what their behaviour has been like at home or at school, a play therapist is always there for them. Sometimes when the child's behaviour is off the wall it is forgotten that he/she is a child who is actually screaming for help, and does not know how to express him/herself in a safe way.
Many children, like adults, want to try and plod forward in life. If they talk about stuff, it may hurt them. They may want to protect themselves and others from feeling sad or angry and so bottle up their feelings. In play therapy a child can 'play out' his/her feeling in a secure environment knowing that no-one is going to judge them. I have had children become animals, fully immersing themselves in their roles. Other children have created masks for me to be the boogie man and chase them. In the everyday world they may get laughed at by other children, or told to not be so silly or even thought of as weird if they tried to play out these roles. In play therapy they can be who they wish to be with full acceptance. There is no expectation that they have to talk about the reason why they have therapy, simply that is has been acknowledged that they are having difficulties at school, have an ill parent, are hurting themselves, as a few examples, and this is a time for them. When children have an emotional change in their lives they do not always feel like talking about it. In play therapy they can open up to their emotions in a less scary way. It is easier to slay a dragon than recognise that he/she is feeling very angry, or for a princess to cry because she has lost her teddy than recognise that he/she is grieving for a family member!
Bullying is often an issue at school. Quite often bullies have their own weaknesses, their own emotional issues to deal with, but they put on a bravado, build up a wall around their issues and act out. Bullying is never acceptable, but if you can get behind the reason for this behaviour, you can help both the bully and the victim and hopefully stop the vicious cycle the bully is in. Low self esteem can also be a problem for many children. By allowing a child to experience an environment where there are no pressures to conform and accept them to be who they are, playing out whatever they need to play out at the same time as having their feelings reflected they can begin to feel they are heard and worthy.
During the sessions the child has access to many different resources including, puppets, art materials, sand, musical instruments, books, and figures that can be used to recreate real life, to help them process their feelings. The therapist is trained to be reflective in what the child is feeling and doing. It is not simply about letting the child play. A play therapist reflects movements, eye contact, feelings and lets the child lead the way. What happens in a session stays in the session. Just as when an adult may see a therapist or counsellor, he/she would not expect them to disclose what he/she shares with them, this also stands for a child. They are given the right of confidentiality, (apart from when safeguarding issues may arise).
Acceptance is a big part of play therapy and building up a trusting relationship with a child takes time. Play therapy is usually a minimum of 12 sessions to ensure that time has been taken for a relationship to develop, and then also to allow the relationship to then have time to end. For many adults it is scary to start something new, and also sad to say goodbye. This can be the same for children and so this needs to be handled in a sensitive way. If a child is already suffering emotionally breaking the therapeutic relationship suddenly can cause more harm. When you begin to trust someone it can leave you with a lot of unanswered questions if they suddenly disappear.
Play therapy is becoming a more regulated profession with both PTUK (Play Therapy UK) and BAPT (British Association of Play Therapists) holding registers of professions who have trained with them and who continue to ensure they are keeping up to date with training and are regularly supervised to ensure safe practice. Play therapy can really make a difference to a child aged from roughly 3-14 years for a variety of reasons. The earlier a child can start to understand and accept their emotions and feelings, the better. If you know your child is suffering, try and alleviate it as soon as possible. If your child has broken their leg, you would not wait 6 weeks to take them to a doctor so why wait for months, possibly years, if something has changed for them emotionally or mentally? I have touched upon bereavement, parental separation, bullying both for a bully and the victim, ADHD and autism, but play therapy really can help with a multitude of issues. Children who are adopted, fostered, abused, self-harm, find socialising difficult, have anger issues, witnessed domestic abuse or a crime, have a long term medical condition are just a few more example of areas that play therapy can help with. If you have any more questions or queries about how play therapy could benefit your child and their individual needs then please do contact me via my website or Facebook.