When young children, ages 2 to 9, are experiencing emotional and behavioral problems, the usefulness of talk therapy is limited because they often cannot communicate effectively using words. Play therapy continues to gain momentum as a viable approach to work therapeutically with young children because it is based on the premise that children communicate best through their usual way of relating — play. Using play in therapy is the most natural and effective way to help children.
Children are most often referred for play therapy when they demonstrate problems with friends, at home or at school. There are many different approaches to play therapy, but all are structured, theoretically based and developmentally appropriate, allowing young children to communicate and learn in the way that is most natural to them. Play therapy is different from “just” playing. It helps children express their feelings, assume responsibility for their behaviors and develop problem-solving skills. Play therapists are trained mental health practitioners who specialize in helping young children. An increasing number of master’s degree programs in counseling are including course work and training in play therapy. In addition, mental health practitioners can attend training provided by the Association for Play Therapy and the newest division of the American Counseling Association, the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling.
As mentioned, a variety of approaches to play therapy exist, but I have found child-centered play therapy, as developed by Garry Landreth, to be particularly effective. Based on the work of Carl Rogers, a basic premise in child-centered play therapy is that children possess an innate force within themselves to grow and heal. Therefore, child-centered play therapists do not direct children on how to resolve their problems or use interpretation with children to promote their growth. Instead, child-centered play therapists relate to children in the playroom in ways that demonstrate a firm belief that children learn the most and heal most effectively when they themselves decide what to do in therapy sessions. Through a supportive and caring relationship with child clients, therapists help these children understand themselves, accept their feelings, assume responsibility for their behaviors in the playroom and learn to control their own behaviors.
Why work with parents?
Although there is consensus among play therapists that effective consultation with parents can maximize beneficial outcomes for children, parental involvement in the process often does not extend beyond the intake session and brief periodic check-ins when parents bring their children to therapy. But effective parent consultation can help parents better understand why play therapy is beneficial for their children, how play therapy interventions are purposeful and that the effectiveness of the interventions can be assessed. In addition, these consultations can provide parents support and hope, both of which help prevent early termination by the parents.
Although play therapists may be aware of the importance of parent consultation in helping children, many therapists are not confident about how to approach consultation with parents. In a national survey in 2008, Tim VanderGast found that play therapists identified consulting with parents as one of their greatest needs in clinical supervision. Because child-centered play therapists focus on the relationship with the child rather than on the presenting problem, they face unique challenges when helping parents understand how this popular theoretical approach helps children with specific goals that are established to assess progress.
The goal of this article is to provide some practical guidelines for therapists as they consult with parents when conducting child-centered play therapy. In addition to describing child-centered play therapy to the parents, these guidelines include:
- Learning about the child and developing a trusting relationship with parents
- Addressing objectives and goals
- Relating established goals to the child-centered approach in the playroom
- Providing ongoing parent consultations
Learn about the child and develop a trusting relationship with the parents
Parenting is often difficult and stressful. When issues create the need to involve a young child in therapy, the counselor’s ability to convey to parents the core conditions (as described by Rogers) of empathy, acceptance and genuineness cannot be overemphasized. It is through these conditions that a strong therapist-parent alliance starts to form. Additionally, consultation meetings provide an opportunity to model the person-centered approach with parents, showing them the power of the basic principles that will be used with their child in child-centered play therapy. To begin building this trusting relationship, I recommend that therapists meet parents for the initial session without any children present.
The first step is listening to the parents’ description of the child. This process results in a better understanding of the parents’ perception of the problem, as well as their worldview and the child’s cultural context. For example, when a mother who had not completed high school described her reasons for bringing her child to play therapy, the therapist sensed the mother felt uncomfortable in the elementary school environment and felt intimidated by her child’s teacher. In this situation, the therapist could demonstrate sensitivity to the mother’s perspective by responding to her feelings of uncertainty and discomfort in that environment. However, I would caution that even as therapists attend to the parents’ concerns, the focus should remain on the child’s issues rather than on the parents’ issues.
Address objectives and goals
Communicating the objectives and establishing specific goals for therapy are important for several reasons. First, the process demonstrates to parents that play therapy interventions are purposeful, which might not be as obvious in child-centered play therapy as it is in talk therapy with older children or adults. In addition, the objectives and goals are useful in evaluating the effectiveness of the play therapy. They become the benchmarks to assess progress during ongoing consultations with parents. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that outcome goals are required in the managed care environments in which many counselors work.
As described by Landreth in the third edition of his book Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, child-centered play therapy adheres to the objectives of helping children become:
- More self-reliant
- More accepting of themselves
- Better problem solvers
- Better able to assume responsibility for their own behaviors
The idea of setting specific goals in addition to those four broad objectives can feel uncomfortable to child-centered play therapists. They may fear that they unconsciously possess some expectations and biases that could inadvertently cause them to direct the child in play therapy or to view the child’s behaviors in the playroom through the lens of the established goals. Awareness of this possibility is important and should be monitored through clinical supervision. However, a combination of broad objectives and specific behavioral goals is optimal for monitoring the effectiveness of therapy.
Focusing on the overarching objectives that can be observed in the playroom and in the child’s life outside of the playroom helps us to recognize broad-based changes. Focusing on more specific goals related to the issues presented by parents ensures that attention is also directed to changes in those behaviors that might not be observed in the playroom. Therefore, using both broad objectives and specific behavioral goals is useful in monitoring the effectiveness of play therapy interventions.
In the initial meeting with the parents, the play therapist strives to establish goals that reflect the family’s cultural context, given that each family has its own expectations and experiences with the meaning of help seeking, mental health and play. During this process, play therapists must be sensitive to the parents’ cultural backgrounds because the parents’ values will influence the types of goals established for their child. For example, in some cultures, compliance with authority, both at school and at home, is highly valued. Thus, the goals that evolve for the child through the therapist-parent interaction could focus on compliance and responsiveness to limits. In other cultures in which children experience more permissive relationships with their parents, the goals for play therapy might include enhancing the child’s self-confidence and ability to make decisions. This collaborative process between parents and therapists will result in a consensus on the goals for play therapy.
Setting goals with parents is hard work, and it takes practice. Goals must be concrete, measurable and observable to ensure that progress can be tracked. In addition, goals that are strength-based and that focus on solutions provide hope for parents.
As parents talk about the reasons they sought play therapy for their child, the work of the play therapist is to help them “translate” their concerns into specific behaviors that can be assessed and to set benchmarks to determine how they will know when their child has changed. For example, a mother brought her 5-year-old son to play therapy because he was “out of control” at home and at school. The therapist asked, “What does ‘out of control’ look like?” With that helpful nudge, the mother was able to elaborate, saying, “When it is time for him to get dressed in the morning, he screams for about 15 minutes and hits himself. He says ‘no’ to every request I make of him. And the teacher sends home a note almost every day about him yelling and hitting other children at school.” Based on this specific description of the boy’s behaviors, it became possible to establish realistic goals.
One question therapists can ask parents is, “How will you know when your child has changed and no longer has this problem?” This information provides the basis for benchmarks for change. In the example above, goals were created that specified how many days each week the child would comply with his mother’s requests, not have a tantrum at home, not hit himself and not receive a report from the teacher about problem behaviors in the classroom. Such clearly stated goals are helpful not only in assessing change but also in managed care environments that require the monitoring of behavioral outcomes for insurance reimbursements.
It cannot be overstated, however, that establishing such goals with parents prior to the start of child-centered therapy does not change the way that play therapists relate to the child in the playroom. There are no predetermined interventions during the counseling sessions that seek to change the child’s behavior. Instead, therapists consistently offer a safe relationship and an environment in which the child is free to be self-directive. In fact, in a chapter for the 1997 book Play Therapy Theory and Practice: A Comparative Presentation, Landreth and Daniel Sweeney recommended that child-centered play therapists continually reflect upon their way of being in clinical supervision to address the issue of inadvertently directing the child’s behavior.
Relate established goals to the child-centered approach the playroom
Perhaps the most challenging part of the initial consultation with parents is explaining how the behaviors of the counselor in the playroom help children achieve both the broad objectives and the established goals of play therapy. Play therapists can help parents by describing how each of the established goals could be addressed in the playroom. Using the earlier example, if a young child is “out of control” at home and school, the play therapist might explain to the parents that through the safe relationship with the therapist, the child will learn to assume responsibility for his decisions in the playroom and will have opportunities to demonstrate self-control if setting limits is necessary in the play therapy session. In this way, parents can recognize that what occurs in the nondirective playroom can be helpful in addressing issues occurring at home and at school.
Provide ongoing consultations
Every four or five sessions, therapists should meet with the parents without the child being present. The purpose of the ongoing consultations is to maintain and foster a strong therapist-parent alliance, allow the parents and play therapist to collaboratively assess the progress toward goals, and further educate parents about child development, parenting skills and community resources.
It is important for child-centered play therapists to maintain case notes to document significant events, attitudes and play themes in the play sessions. In addition, reviewing case notes can be useful when assessing progress toward goals. For example, if a child is experiencing anxiety outside of the playroom, case notes can help identify changes in behavior that indicate anxiety in the playroom as well, such as when making decisions about what to do in the playroom, facing the therapist or interacting with the therapist. For a child presenting with goals related to aggressive behavior outside of the playroom, documentation of play sessions could note changes in the child’s response to limits setting. Case notes can be reviewed to identify play session themes (for example, themes of power, mastery or nurturance) to share with the parents. When meeting with parents, play therapists should remain sensitive to maintaining the child’s confidentiality by not disclosing specific play behaviors or the child’s verbalizations during play sessions.
Maintaining and fostering a strong therapist-parent alliance: A primary goal for these meetings is to foster a warm relationship with the parents. The counselor can do this by acknowledging the parents’ experiences, struggles and feelings and responding with empathy and care. Through listening to the parents, the play therapist is better able to support and educate when it is appropriate.
Assessing progress: If parents share more general concerns about themselves at the beginning of the session, the counselor can focus the session on the child by asking an open-ended question such as “How have things been going with ___?” Using active listening skills at this time ensures shared understanding of what the parents are saying. Play therapists should listen for information related to the stated goals for therapy. If the parents do not address each of the goals identified in the first intake session, the therapist can systematically address the goals not mentioned. It is not uncommon for a review of the original goals to surprise parents. Some parents will have no memory of certain goals because the issues will have resolved themselves.
During these ongoing consultation sessions, the therapist can share themes observed in the play therapy sessions, especially if they relate to the established goals of therapy, such as the child’s ability to control behaviors when limits are set or an increasing ability to assume responsibility for decisions. After reviewing the goals, the therapist and parents collaboratively determine whether the original goals were met, whether they need to be modified or if it is time to terminate the relationship.
Providing education on parenting skills and community resources: If the decision is made to continue play therapy, the therapist and parents set a time for their next meeting. Once it is established that the parents will be returning, the play therapist can also share appropriate parenting skills based on the needs of the parents and child. Most parents are eager to learn new approaches to discipline and highly value the skills of limits setting and choice giving. In addition, teaching the skills of responding to the child’s feelings and returning responsibility to the child has been found to reduce parental stress and create a more positive environment in the home. That outcome can influence the entire family system.
Ongoing meetings with parents also provide opportunities to address other needs the child may have that are not currently being met. The therapist can then provide or recommend appropriate resources. For example, if a child appears to have a learning disability, the play therapist should make an appropriate referral for the child to be assessed for needed services.
Child-centered play therapists focus on the relationship with the child rather than the presenting problem. Thus, therapists face unique challenges in helping parents understand how this theoretical approach supports children in progressing toward specific goals. To demonstrate the effectiveness of their work with children and to respond to the demands of managed care in agency settings, play therapists must skillfully share the objectives of child-centered play therapy, establish behavioral outcome goals and then assess progress toward achieving those goals. The guidelines proposed in this article are specifically designed so that child-centered play therapists can collaborate with parents to more effectively help young children.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Phyllis B. Post is a professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the founder of the Multicultural Play Therapy Center at the university. She is a licensed professional counselor supervisor and registered play therapist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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