JFS Perspectives

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Play Therapy for Young Children

Play Therapy for Young Children

Imagine being a young child and wanting to communicate but not having the vocabulary. Maybe you’ve been through trauma, maybe you struggle with emotional regulation, or maybe you worry frequently.

Any of these issues would most likely cause problems at school and at home. There are issues bothering you and you want help, but you aren’t able to ask for what you need with words because you aren’t there yet in your development. There’s nothing “wrong with you,” you’re just struggling and need extra support. And you’re communicating the only way you know how—through play.

For a child who struggles with words, how on earth are they going to sit on a therapist’s couch for 45 minutes and just talk? The answer is, they’re not. For most children, this is not a realistic expectation for a successful therapy session.

Children ages three to 12 often process thought and communicate through play. Play is their language and primary means of communicating. Since play is the medium that is most effective for helping many children communicate and process trauma, it makes sense that therapists who work with young children (and even teens) would fill their offices with play therapy supplies and utilize play therapy interventions when appropriate. But that can lead many parents to wonder what their kids are doing during therapy sessions. Play therapy is developmentally appropriate and effective.

With trauma, for example, children will often repeatedly play out parts of the trauma, or themes of the trauma will be highly visible in their play. For a child experiencing their parents’ divorce or separation, I’ve had children “mediating” all of the “house stuff” (play therapy supplies) into “mom’s side” and “dad’s side” of the office.

Sometimes it’s easier for children to project their feelings onto a stuffed animal or a puppet than communicating them to a therapist. While this can look strange to some, it is the child trying to make sense of what happened or is currently happening in their lives the best way they know how. A trained and experienced therapist can facilitate interventions using play therapy to help the child communicate and process their life experiences. This is meeting the child where they are, and supporting them as they work through life’s challenges in a safe, neutral space.

So rather than having your young child sit on a couch and talk to a therapist for what most people think of as “therapy,” I would encourage parents who are considering support for their young children to find a therapist who utilizes play therapy.

I often tell parents that I almost have to trick their kids into therapy. It’s not going to be fun all the time, but I try to make it as fun, developmentally appropriate, and painless as possible. This helps build rapport with young clients and helps them be more engaged in sessions, so they actually want to come to therapy. A willing therapy participant almost always results in a better therapy outcome. It probably isn’t what Sigmund Freud imagined, but it helps children work through life’s challenges on their own terms in a way that is most helpful to them.

Kelsey CarlsonBy Kelsey Carlson, MSW, LCSW, KidSuccess Therapist
Kelsey Carlson is a JFS KidSuccess therapist on the school-based team. She is responsible for providing individual, family, and group therapy services to children and their families in two Denver elementary schools. She also does case management and works with staff at the schools to advocate for trauma-informed care of students and their families. Kelsey graduated from the University of Denver with a master’s degree in Social Work in 2014. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked at JFS since August of 2018.