Usually I let my kid-clients decide whether or not they want their parents to come into their play therapy sessions with them. (Some situations require parents be an active participant but most don’t.) The littlest children always want a parent to sit in the room, which is absolutely fine. The kids and I play together and the parents watch or read a book or play on their smart phones.
I know that sometimes parents are sitting there watching us have a tea party or race cars or build with blocks and thinking, “I drove all this way for this? Took time out of the day, got the other kids childcare, took time off of work, took my kid out of school for this?” Because play therapy looks an awful lot like playing.
I try to head this off by explaining how play therapy works at the intake session but it doesn’t always sink in. And then we’re all in the office together and their child is playing and I’m watching (because I don’t play unless I get invited to play — my job is facilitation and observation) and … well, I’m not surprised when the question comes up, “What exactly are you doing anyway? And how is it helping?”
What I tell parents is that talk therapy is facilitated exploration through discussion and play therapy is facilitated exploration through play. Play is how kids communicate.
What makes the play therapy space special are the same things that make the talk therapy space special:
- Unconditional positive regard (I accept you, I appreciate you, I see the good in you no matter what you do or say);
- Safety (with rare exception what you share is private and stays in that room);
- Concentrated focus (I am paying sharp attention to what you do/say and trying to both understand you better and help you understand yourself better);
- A commitment to helping you move forward (I am actively looking for ways to help you grow through your experience);
- A particular kind of loaded environment (comfy chairs, quiet, tissues at the ready and specific toys that encourage sharing).
Unlike most adults and bigger kids who can learn through give and take discussion, young children lack the insight and the vocabulary that allows them to discuss their experiences and feelings. Through play they are able to share what is causing them concern and work through it.
Many of the children who come see me play the same game over and over, trying to make sense of something so they can move forward. Just as talking something out can help, playing something out can help, too.
A common example is a child who heads straight to doctor’s kit every session because she’s working out her feelings about her last well-child visit. Having an understanding witness who gives voice (through her unbiased observation) to the story helps the child take control of her narrative.