What happens during play therapy sessions?


In play therapy, the initial focus is on building the relationship between the child and the therapist.  This relationship is very important to the therapeutic process because a child or adolescent will more readily talk about their feelings when they feel respected and accepted.

During sessions, the therapist uses specific techniques to assess how a child or adolescent experience their world and how they communicate and react to the events and people in their world. Children are lead to become aware of what they are feeling and opportunities are given by the therapist to express these feelings. Awareness is a very important process in play therapy, because without awareness change is not possible.

When should I bring my child in for play therapy? 

It is very important that emotional and behavioral problems be addressed at an early stage.  If left untreated, these problems may cause a child a great deal of distress.  If a child does not understand their behavior or have control over it, it can cause fear and break down confidence, which, in turn, can impact other areas of life, such as the ability to complete tasks and schoolwork, to make friends and deal with stress.


If you find that your child displays strange, uncharacteristic behavior (like being aggressive, destructive, withdrawn, etc.) after a specific stressful event (like divorce, new school, birth of a sibling, death) and this behavior lasts for two weeks or more, it may be time to seek professional help. Your child's behaviors may be an indication that they are not able to deal with and express what they are experiencing and/or feeling.

In other cases, your child's change in behavior may not even be linked to any particular stressor that you are aware of, or the cause of the behavior may be something totally different from that which you have imagined.  In such cases it is recommended that you speak to a professional who will advise you if it is necessary for you to take your child for therapy.

What issues can play therapy help with? 

Research has shown that play therapy can successfully address issues related to:

  • Self-concept & self-esteem
  • Making friends
  • Adapting to new situations (such as a new school or family set-up).
  • Symptomatic behavior (such as stomach ache, headaches, anxiousness, depression, bed-wetting)
  • Trauma (such as divorce, sexual molestation, the death of a parent, hijacking)
  • Attention deficit disorder or attention-hyperactivity disorder
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Aggressive behavior or rage
  • Shyness
  • Grief

How long will therapy last? 


The duration of therapy depends on the child's personality, the nature of the bond between the child and the therapist and the nature of the problem.  Some children are very shy and need a lot of encouragement to express their feelings and thoughts, while others are quick to talk.  Children who have been hurt badly by adults might be apprehensive and might need a long time to trust someone and feel free to talk.  Some children have developed clever ways to avoid thinking about their feelings because this is too painful for them and they need time to feel safe to break down their barriers and build courage to deal with their emotions and the painful events in their lives.

In general, a child or adolescent attends therapy for at least six therapy sessions as this usually gives sufficient time to build a relationship of trust and to have time to discover more about feelings and thoughts, to feel free to express them and to start talking about solutions.


What is the role of the therapist? 

In play therapy, the therapist has many roles.  The therapist becomes the child's friend, and, when applicable, participates in activities and play.  In addition, the therapist creates a safe environment in which the child can get in touch with themselves and what they are feeling, thinking, wishing and dreaming. It is important to note that the therapist does not judge or interpret, but rather reflects on what they see and experience with the child. Overall, the therapist helps the child to become aware of what they are doing and feeling to enable the child to make changes if he wishes to do so.  Sometimes the therapist may make suggestions, but the responsibility for accepting and applying these suggestions rests on the child.

Do parents participate in play therapy? 

Parents are highly important to the therapeutic process.  Prior to the child's first session, the therapist will talk to the parents to gain knowledge about the child's current behaviors.  Though play therapists may hold some individual sessions with the child alone, they may choose to involve the parents in some joint sessions.  In addition, it is also important for the therapists and the guardians to remain in regular contact and hold open lines of communication.  Overall, the therapist and parents will work together to understand the child and to develop constructive, respectful and supportive ways of communication with the child. 


Can play therapy be used with adolescents? 


Play therapy can be used with all ages and walks of life.  In particular, play therapy has been found to be very effective with adolescents. Sessions with the adolescent population may focus on creative techniques to help adolescents become aware of and understand their feelings and thoughts.  An example would be to ask the adolescent to draw a situation, feeling or dream, enact it or model it in clay. Music is also a helpful tool that can be used when building the relationship with the therapist or for expressing emotion.

Play therapy is an effective aid in helping adolescents learn about themselves, make sense of their emotions or thoughts, and in becoming more self-confident.  Play therapy also provides teens with opportunities to experiment with new behavior in a safe environment, be it in individual therapy or in group therapy. Group work is quite effective for making friends, becoming assertive, and learning skills and coping mechanisms from other teenagers who experience similar problems or challenges