Play Therapy 101 – Part 1 – Does it Work?

Do you have a child you love dearly who is driving you a bit crazy lately? If you cringed reading that, then had the thought “someone gets me!”, play therapy may be the next step for you. Child centered play therapy (CCPT) is an evidence-based way to engage children between the ages of three and eleven in a developmentally appropriate way. CCPT can help children address issues like anxiety, emotional outbursts, anger issues, and much more. In this three-part blog series, I will describe CCPT in more detail and why it works, starting with a brief introduction.

Tell me about your childhood

Think about common counseling stereotypes. Your mind might have quickly imagined someone with a thick accent (we can thank Sigmund Freud for that) saying: “tell me about your childhood…” Therapists talk about how a clients’ past experiences impact the present, meaning that experiences from our early childhood have lasting effects on our current fulfillment and peace with life. CCPT investigates the root causes of many adult struggles and addresses them immediately rather than waiting decades later, after life’s traumas have caused damage. 

Imagine you could go back into your own childhood and have a way to effectively process your struggles, feelings, fears, and questions before they wreaked havoc on your teen and adult years. What relief! CCPT is a way to change a child’s trajectory from journeying through isolation and suffering toward seeking connection and resilience. This includes a healthier, happier teen and adult experience.

A drive to be well

Humans have an innate desire to be whole. Wholeness happens when needs are met.  As children, our emotional and behavioral expression is a way of communicating our needs.  We cry when we are hungry because we want to be fed. We reach for a parent when we are scared because we long to be held. We get a skinned knee and run to mom because we inherently believe she can make it better. Without knowing it, kids psychologically understand their needs more so than adults, but they are less able to verbalize them. They don’t like being hungry, scared, hurt, lonely, or unloved.  They want to find a way to feel satisfied, safe, healthy, smart, welcomed, and loved. 

Play therapy harnesses this God-given hunger for wholeness as an engine for emotional/psychological progress. Play is not a waste of time; it is the language of a child! Play is the most significant way children learn as they engage their imagination, explore the world and try to understand how things fit together. Kids work out their emotional issues as they play. CCPT allows your child to make use of a specially designed, therapeutic environment so that they can engage in self-directed play under the supervision of a trained child play therapist. This therapist acts as a safe and knowledgeable presence in the room to aid your child in healing and self-discovery. 

Finding the words

When adults walk into therapy, they expect to talk to get to the root of what has been bothering them. Once that occurs, they devise a strategy with the counselor to change their negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors and start to learn skills to adapt and change their lifestyle. 

This does not work well with most kids! Developmentally, a child mind isn’t ready to think in abstract terms of feelings and emotions. Their world is more black-and-white/good-and-bad. Even more importantly, kids lack the verbal skills to express their thinking using words. This is where something amazing happens in the play therapy setting. Children use toys as their words, making them literal and metaphorical vehicles of learning! 

What adults do through talk, children do through play. By playing out various scenarios, they process their thoughts, feelings, pain, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and trauma – all the therapeutic steps adults take during talking, kids instinctively do through play by putting toys and imagination to work. This is not just a theory!  Peer-reviewed research has repeatedly established the incredible effectiveness of CCPT.

Seeing therapeutic gains

Trained CCPT counselors understand how to optimize the playroom environment so your little one gains maximum therapeutic benefit. Play therapists use their understanding of child development and evidence-based practices to nurture a child’s exploration. While observing and interacting with children, counselors help kids make sense of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to process difficult emotions and negative ideas.

In contrast to common perception, time will not heal children, nor will they forget about their trauma. Your child wants to work through whatever is causing internal distress. CCPT can be the key. Parents consistently find that CCPT positively impacts children’s emotional stability, reduces anxiety and problem behaviors, and helps develop positive social skills via the mechanism of play. 

Conclusion

This article has given a brief introduction to the concept of play therapy. The next blog in this series will look at the specifics of what happens in a play therapy session to understand how it is far more than typical play at home.  Play therapy has the potential to help your child and family move from frustration into joy. Contact a trained child therapist today to see how they can help.

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