Play therapy can be an effective therapeutic tool to help children with emotional and cognitive processing during periods when children and parents are separated (i.e. divorce, business travel, deployment, incarceration, addictions, hospitalizations, and mental health issues). This may be particularly true for younger children.
Children may not be able to cognitively grasp the mechanics and structural changes that accompany family transitions, such as divorce and living in two homes. Using puppets, storybooks, pictures, calendars, and other play therapy tools, we can show the child through play and imagination what family changes means in terms of practical changes.
Children may have strong feelings around a parent being away, including self-blame, guilt, sadness, anger, and confusion that they are unable to express. Therefore, we could use puppets, figurines, and play houses to re-enact varying family situations leading to divorce, for instance. The child could play the main child character and create the story. The adult could ask leading questions about feelings and thoughts, and what, where, how, when, and why related to the story, hence, exploring the child’s inner experience and understanding of the situation in indirect ways. Working through play and fantasy, we are able to touch on the child’s emotions and explore them with the child to validate, normalize, resolve, and adapt these feelings for more positive ones.
Frequently, children have multiple questions about a parent being away from home that they may not feel comfortable articulating. Play therapy also enables us to introduce and answer typical questions that children ask in non-threatening ways so that the child is better able to emotionally and cognitively understand and cope with this major life transition. I highly recommend play therapy in working with children ages 2-12 years when they are faced with significant loss and grief related to a parent.
GOAL OF PLAY THERAPY
The goal of play therapy is to allow us to work with a child on complicated issues, such as grief and loss, without overwhelming the child in the process. Play therapy uses the psychological tool of displacement, a technique that allows the child to feel/believe ‘it is happening to them and not to me’. Working with children directly on feelings and questions related to grief and loss may be too painful and not effective. Hence, the goal and outcome of play therapy is to indirectly work with a child to process his/her emotions and thoughts utilizing symbolic play and fantasy, so that the child can work through, understand, cope, adapt, resolve, and master the underlying feelings and thoughts to feel better about themselves and the situation.
There are multiple tools we can use for play therapy. Puppets, drawings, story-telling, arts and crafts, sand-trays, figurines and houses, board games, creating stories and picture books, water play, play-dough, magnets, legos… The list is endless. There are some great resources online for play therapy materials at www.playtherapysupplies.com.
HOW PLAY THERAPY WORKS
You have to be well trained to apply the technique successfully. The key is allow the child to be the director and guide the play, while you are in the background, gently nudging the play here and there to explore the presenting stressor, and reach the psychological, emotional, or cognitive issues related to it. A skilled clinician can access the unspoken, non-verbalized struggles the child is experiencing via play, and can then quietly and non-intrusively introduce themes, feelings, behaviors, and responses that allow the child to feel validated, and learn positive, adaptive, coping responses. You have to be very gentle, fluid, flexible and fully engaged in the play, so the child knows you are being authentic and is able to connect to you and the play. This means getting down on the floor and participating and interacting in the play, and not just observing the child (which is a different form of assessment).
There has been significant research and writing conducted on play therapy and it is a well-established technique used by child psychologists. Many scholarly articles and books are available for therapists and non-professionals to learn more about play therapy and how effective it can be for children.
If a child is stuck, is emotionally struggling, and is unable to process and heal from a significant life stressor, play therapy with a well-trained child psychologist could be very beneficial.