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What is play therapy?

When we, as adults, are troubled about something, most of us are able to sit down and talk it through with another person. But have you tried asking your child what is upsetting him? How was school? How are you getting along with your friends? It’s quite common for kids not to be able to engage with these kinds of conversations. It takes time and lots of practice to develop the skill of talking about one’s feelings. Children often don’t tell adults in a clear, coherent, direct way about their troubles. They haven’t developed the ability to communicate in an adult way.

Luckily, children up to the age of about 12 years are usually able to make use of the medium of play in order to express and work through their feelings. That is why child psychologists sometimes offer play therapy to children who are struggling in their lives. Play is a powerful tool that can be used to explore a child’s inner world. When kids can’t use words to describe complex feelings, play offers them a form of expression and release. When the therapist develops an understanding of what the child is experiencing, it gives immense relief to the child. It also helps her to start putting together the pieces of her own mind and to develop a more solid, cohesive sense of self. Therapy for children is often extremely effective. If a talented and skilled therapist is given the opportunity to work with a young person, it spares that individual years and years of destructive patterns of behaviour and interaction. It can, quite literally, nip the problem in the bud. Therapy in young people works well. It also works more quickly than in older people, because the problems are not as deeply entrenched.

Play therapy has actually been around since the 1920’s. Early pioneers such as Anna Freud and Melanie Klein created models for play therapy which are still hugely influential in our work with children today. If you take your child for a psychological assessment, play therapy might be recommended to you. But the child psychotherapist might recommend something else instead. Play therapy is not always indicated. If play therapy is the treatment of choice for your child, it usually would take place at least once a week at a regular time. Sessions usually last about 50 minutes. The therapy could be short term and time-limited (for example, 12 sessions). More often though it tends to be a long-term process that takes at least 1 year, probably longer. Your child psychotherapist will advise you about the appropriate approach for your child, depending on the specific circumstances.