Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

December 6, 2023

Discovering Play Therapy

By: Jennifer Cobb, LCMHCA

When I became a parent, there was a lot I didn’t know. When my kids had a meltdown, I struggled to know how to respond. I thought they were manipulating me. I didn’t understand that my kids were reaching out to me with their emotional needs. I didn’t recognize when I was getting hijacked by my own emotions. I knew it was important for my kids to experience me as a consistent presence of love and guidance. But when things didn’t go as planned, what was I supposed to do, just pretend that I was ok?

I didn’t recognize that my kids needed me to be fully engaged and in the room with them — not just to correct them or offer advice — but to give them an emotional space to be their genuine selves with someone who’s just downright crazy in love with them. I didn’t know that my kids needed me to be their first mirror. I didn’t get that the only way for them to begin to understand their own emotions would be through knowing that I understood what they were going through.

I believed that if I wanted to be a “good” mom, I should always be available to meet the needs of my kids, whether or not I was sleep deprived, lonely, or overwhelmed. I didn’t understand that part of taking care of my kids was taking care of myself. Even if that meant I needed some time away from them.

I didn’t know that all relationships have times of broken trust, when the connection is ruptured. I also didn’t know that repairs, the intentional acts of acknowledging the rupture and restoring trust, are essential to maintaining strong and beneficial connections with others. I didn’t know that my kids needed me to be prepared to apologize.

When I first discovered play therapy, although I had a lot of questions, I found it spoke to my heart, not only as a parent but also as a human being. But I also wondered what a play therapist would do. How could play be considered therapy? I was skeptical. Was there actual evidence that it works?

As I explored play therapy, I discovered that across all cultures, all children tend to spontaneously play. Play is a child’s natural language. In many ways, children are not like adults, partly because their verbal abilities have not fully matured. While their capacity for language is under development, they still have a lot of ways to communicate! And they sure do have a lot they want us to know about them. Their behaviors – even the ones we find completely mysterious – represent their attempts to get their underlying needs met. They have a deep desire to feel understood – like they know the other person gets them.

Children process their experiences in ways that are different from adults. While their language skills are still developing, children often communicate, build relationships, and test their ideas by using toys. Using play to make sense of their world is natural for children throughout the globe. Instead of talking through their difficulties, in play therapy children are given the opportunity to “play it through.”

Here’s one way to think about it:

Traditional psychotherapy, or talk therapy, uses methods that rely on advanced language skills that are still under development in young children. In play therapy, children’s natural language is used instead to help support them as they process their own experiences, whether mundane routines, enjoyable celebrations, or painful trauma. Carefully selected toys, along with the therapist who is specially trained to address the unique needs of young children, allow the child to experience therapeutic space that supports growth and healing. As young children experience the warm acceptance and understanding of the play therapist, the child uses the relationship to integrate their experiences, grow in their self-understanding, and develop pro-social and self-enhancing ways of being.

Through play therapy, children come to a deeper sense of trust in themselves to find successful ways of coping and getting their needs met. They grow in their capacity to tolerate frustration. They become more self-controlled and have a deeper capacity to regulate their emotions.

As a counselor with specialized training in play therapy, my job is to build a relationship that your child experiences as safe and accepting. I believe the therapeutic relationship is ultimately what allows for the growth and healing that many children find through play therapy.

Play Therapy changed the way I parent my own children.

Play Therapy pays attention to kids’ behavior because that behavior often has meaning. I learned to trust that my kids will help me understand what they need. My kids have a deep need to feel understood. Play Therapy opens up a caring relationship that offers a way for kids to explore more about themselves as they are now and who they are becoming.

Through play therapy, I learned to be genuine, even when my emotions were not the most pleasant. Play Therapy respects all emotions, even the difficult ones, and uses authentic feelings to support growth and healing. It also values the unique strengths of each person and honors the process of development. I learned to accept that my kids will make mistakes. And, I will too.

Play Therapy helped me as a parent to learn how setting limits on inappropriate behavior can be a part of meeting my kids’ emotional needs. I began to understand that my kids needed to know where the limits are. Play Therapy provides an environment that helps kids increase their tolerance of frustration, their emotional regulation, and good healthy coping skills so that they can more easily handle when the answer just has to be “no.”

And, in case you were wondering, there is good evidence that play therapy helps.

For many years, evidence for play therapy was not widely reported. However, recently, professionals in the field of play therapy have focused efforts to reach a wider audience about its effectiveness, particularly Child-Centered Play Therapy. The outcome of many years of evidence-based research is summarized here:

California Evidence-Base Clearinghouse for Child Welfare

Summary of Play Therapy Meta-Analyses Findings

Important research highlights are that:

  • Optimal play therapy treatment effectiveness comes with 30 to 40 sessions.
  • Parent involvement in the play therapy treatment process increases effectiveness.
  • Children of all ages can benefit from child-centered play therapy, especially children younger than 8 years of age.

I am happy to accept new clients for play therapy and parent coaching services at the Pineville office. Reach out and let’s start the support you and your child need.