Therapy or Play?

I received a call from a lady saying that she felt uncomfortable with the service her 4-year-old daughter was receiving. She told me that the person who was supposed to provide the psychological counseling and offer a professional service to help her daughter was “just playing with her.” This mother did not see the counselor having a conversation with the daughter about the problems she was experiencing. After talking with the mother, I was able to understand the dynamics between the mental health counselor and the child. Undoubtedly, this therapist was using a technique that many professionals use when working with children to explore their feelings and help understand their behavior: play therapy.

Some people find it difficult to understand that conventional therapy used with older people is not the best intervention when working with children, especially when the children are between the ages of 3 and 11. During this phase of their lives, children use play as a form of communication; they use it to express their fantasies, fears, conflicts, and dreams. Therefore, it is common for a therapist to use play therapy as a tool to understand their feelings and explore how they perceive their inner and outer worlds.

Years ago, taking a child to a psychologist or a mental health professional was an implication that the child was “crazy.” Fortunately, many parents today understand that consulting with an expert may prevent future problems in the child or help the child process certain situations that are presented in the family (e.g., divorce, separation, bereavement, or violent arguments between parents).

A common mistake is that many parents believe therapy will improve the behavior of their child immediately, as if by magic, and after a couple of sessions they will have a submissive, docile, and obedient child. It is also difficult to achieve positive results when parents are not involved and do not participate in the therapy sessions with their child. The counselor who is working with the child needs a lot of cooperation from the parents in order to find a solution to the problem the family is experiencing at home.

There are many cases in which children can benefit from such treatment. In my community, I see children with low self-esteem, excessive fears, aggressiveness, worries, anguish, and extreme insecurity. A series of play therapy sessions could also be helpful for children with hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression. When a child has been physically or sexually abused, is emotionally challenged, has witnessed domestic violence, or has been abandoned, the need for play therapy is obvious, and the child could benefit greatly from it.

Some therapists also use play therapy to inform children about their medical procedures (e.g., surgery) and treatment. A hospital can be very stressful for children as well as their siblings and other relatives. Children often feel afraid and confused. In these cases, play therapy can help them better understand the processes and can reduce the stress caused by these situations.

It is important to mention that not all counselors can perform play therapy. Those who use this form of treatment have very specialized training and a unique ability to understand and be involved in children’s play. They are able to create a relationship of trust and confidence so that the children may express their internal conflicts and, in turn, help the counselors recognize and explore the situations that are affecting the children’s lives.

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