Play Therapy 101: What Can Parents Do to Support Their Child’s Therapy?

In my previous posts on play therapy, I explored the core ideas about how Child-Centered Play Therapy (CCPT) works, the therapeutic environment of the playroom, and the methods play therapists utilize to help children grow and progress. In this final segment, I am going to explore how you as the parent or guardian can help support your child’s therapy. I will discuss the unique issues specific to this kind of therapy and how you can help your child get the most out of his or her counseling sessions.

When my first instinct is not what I go with…

Every parent typically has a natural impulse to ask the same thing when a little one comes out of the playroom. It often sounds something like:

  • “Did you listen and do what you were told today?”
  • “Did you do good?”
  • “Were you nice for the counselor?”

While these are all normal things to say, they are unproductive in supporting your child’s work in play therapy. In fact, these types of questions actually are counterproductive! That probably comes as a shock. When asking these things, most parents are attempting to support what has happened in session. Thus, these seem like logical lines of inquiry until one stops to consider the unique environment the therapist creates in the playroom experience. Here are three things to remember regarding how CCPT works:

In the playroom:

  1. The child is in charge.
  2. The focus is PROCESS instead of performance.
  3. Confidentiality still applies to your little client.

These three things shape how you can best respond to your child when they come back to you after each session. Let us look at each idea in more detail to see how they work out practically.

In Here, You Decide…

That is the phrase your little one will hear repeatedly in the playroom whenever they ask a question. One of the most powerful aspects of CCPT is this focus on choice-giving. Children rarely get such freedom outside of the counseling playroom environment, which is why it is a powerful therapeutic tool. It is also why it can be so jarring for a child to have spent 50 minutes being free to guide and direct their own play only to have a parent’s first response be about whether or not they were obedient. The playroom is an artificial environment in that the real world (or the world outside the session) rarely affords a child such freedom and self-direction. 

The focus in the play therapy session is not on training a child to behave but rather on allowing the child a safe place to discover their own personality and identity. Additionally, the child benefits when he or she can process sensations and emotions through the medium of play. CCPT is the most extensively researched and documented approach to working with children. Time and again, the research has provided abundant evidence to support the effectiveness of this modality. While it is counterintuitive that giving a child space and time to play in nearly any way they wish without a focus on what is acceptable behavior, the results actually speak for themselves. CCPT has the ability to transform children by allowing them the freedom to explore their world through the power of play without the added pressure to be on their best behavior. 

Now, you can support your child’s therapy by being aware of and aligning with the awareness that your child will return to you in a transitional state. I suggest relaxing your expectation and anxiety about fixing your child’s behavior as your child comes back to you prior to leaving. Questions about appropriateness of behavior in the session can be as much about our parental insecurity as reflections of concern for our children. Try to relax! 

Trained professional play therapists have likely seen it all – your therapist will not be phased by whatever your child is struggling with. Above all, your child-centered play therapist values empathy and unconditional positive regard. You can trust that your therapist cares and understands that your child is working through some things. Your child’s well being is your therapist’s top priority. All of this said, the tendency to nervously ask if your little one was on their best behavior is unnecessary. A more helpful statement might be focusing on reminding them that they will be back to see their therapist and play again next week!

Instead of How Did You Do…

In our culture obsessed with performance and productivity, children can get the wrong message that the only thing that matters is measuring up to unspoken standards. In CCPT, we believe that all children have innate dignity and value by virtue of their humanity, not just their productivity. No one likes to feel as if their worth is a matter of their ability to produce good grades, high-level work, or best-in-class assignments. 

In the play therapy session, when a child works hard to draw a picture, our focus is on the process rather than the product. We focus on staying non-evaluative. A child’s lego creation is celebrated for the hard work and the sense of pride put into his or her effort rather than some external standard. It is all about esteem-building and helping the child feel strong, capable, and valued for their effort

Therapists may say: “wow, you really worked hard on that,” or “you knew exactly what you wanted to do and how to do it.” They may even comment: “you feel so creative and proud!” What this means for the parent looking to align with the therapist is that the caregiver should refrain from questions about how well they did (because therapy is not something to grade!) and withhold remarks about how something the child made is “absolutely perfect.” You can thank them by sharing that you appreciate their hard work. You can feel free to say how much you like it, but avoid evaluative comments that might influence a child to get sidetracked next by focusing on trying to better their artwork for you. Perhaps a better response is to acknowledge that you appreciate them going to the playroom with their friend, the therapist. 

Your encouragement and acknowledgement of their openness to therapy speaks volumes to your child about your support for the process of their growth.

And Lastly, Remember: They Get Confidentiality Too!

What adult would open up and share their heart with a therapist if they didn’t trust what was said in therapy would stay in therapy? Child-centered play therapists only break confidentiality for five specific reasons: 

  1. If the therapist is concerned the client might harm themselves
  2. If the therapist is concerned the client might harm others
  3. If there is suspected child or elder abuse
  4. If the therapist believes that the client may have been involved in some way with the underage making or distribution of pornography
  5. Or if the therapist is court ordered to surrender case notes

That is the ethical standard, and it applies to child clients as well. Therapists and parents will discuss themes present in play and clinical impressions, but the surest way to shut a child down in therapy is to give them the impression the therapist is going to tell mommy or daddy whatever they do or say. A child who feels watched is not a child who will freely play. This is important to remember and should inform our statements to our kids post therapy. 

Instead of asking “what did you talk about today,” a parent might say: “I hope you and your therapist enjoyed your play time today!” If your child wants to talk about something, that is their prerogative. It is so helpful to respect their counseling confidentiality. This creates an environment of mutual trust and respect between child and therapist, which counselors call the therapeutic alliance. Trust is the foundation from which progress is born. This is not about keeping secrets – skilled child therapists recognize the nuance between secret talk (which is unethical) and client confidence (which is the cornerstone of the client-counselor relationship).

One more thought on how you can help:

Finally, I might recommend something called Child Parent Relationship Training (CPRT) to every parent with a youngster in therapy. It is a method for teaching parents how to adapt many of the therapist’s approaches utilized in the playroom to your own home. CPRT can be a part of your child’s therapy by involving you in the actual playroom sessions to watch, learn, and practice CCPT skills under the supervision and coaching of a trained child-centered play therapist. It is a way to scaffold or buttress what is happening in the weekly counseling sessions in your own day-to-day life by modifying and adapting the best practices of your child’s therapy for home. Ask your child’s play therapist about how you can learn CPRT today!

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