The Parents’ Role in Play Therapy
Teresa Paterson, LPC, LCPC, RPT, CCTP
Most often, when a child begins counseling, the focus is on how to help the child. Parents want them to behave, and ultimately feel, better. I have found that involving all of the important people in the child or teen’s life provides a comprehensive approach to helping the child find wellness with both emotions and behaviors. Bringing together all a child’s systems: primary caregivers, extended family, and community partners, bridges needs to create a successful outcome.
The Process of Play Therapy
Parents are typically given a referral for counseling from their pediatrician or school counselor, based on reported and observed symptoms. The primary caregiver’s attitude about therapy highly influences how the child will accept the therapy process. Although all children are unique and have individual needs, Play Therapy provides a consistent, safe place for children to be authentic and playful, while working through the most challenging and emotionally-charged situations in their lives.
I believe a child’s play is incredibly important, not only in providing an avenue for a child’s social-emotional development, but as a language. You read that right, the toys in the playroom can serve as the language a child needs to learn, communicate, and describe events. The language of play also helps children make sense of their world. When parents give the process the space and time to work, children will benefit and grow.
Trusting the Process
Through my extensive work with children and families, I now know that children and teens make more progress toward their treatment goals when they are supported by the people who care for them most…their parents/caregivers. This support comes in many forms: guidance, empathic responses, modeling new skills, even making sure a child makes it to their appointments consistently is support!
Often, parents will either slow down or stop sessions as soon as challenging behaviors decrease, or when their child or teen reports feeling better. However, this is actually when the work BEGINS. Because they are better able to manage their emotions and behaviors, the child or teen can start to integrate their therapy experience as part of their new way of viewing the world around them. Slowing down or stopping the therapy process at this point can damage, or even reverse, progress.
4 Ways Parents can Support the Therapeutic Process
- Provide consistency in the counseling process. Your child’s counselor will provide recommendations for treatment frequency, and duration of treatment. Your commitment to trusting the therapeutic relationship and process desiring communicates to your child that you are on board with what is best for them.
- Actively provide updates prior to sessions. These valuable updates help your counselor know how your child is engaging with their systems (i.e. peers, school, clubs, family members, etc). The goal for updates to provide information, not for tattling or “proving” how challenging the child is.
- Actively pursue parent sessions. These sessions are designed to help you understand the neuro-biology behind your child’s struggles. They also serve as a place to learn positive parenting techniques. These techniques can help you and your child navigate the behavioral changes they are exploring in session. These approaches can impact how a child responds to interventions throughout the therapy process.
- Allow yourself and your child to make mistakes. Every mistake is a teachable moment! This is the perfect time to put new skills to work, to guide your child through calming strategies, and to accept and encourage your child to make good choices with a calm mind and body.
To sum it up, therapy for your child or teen works when all systems are engaged! This means that everyone influencing the child or teen is committed to the process and the desired outcomes. By working together with a qualified counselor, you are on a path to finding the wellness your family deserves. Counseling and Play Therapy is hard work, and when balanced with supportive families and systems, it has lasting change!
Teresa Paterson, LPC, LCPC, RPT, CCTP is a child development expert and a trauma competent clinical professional who works with children and teens who experience anxiety and depression. She also provides attachment focused treatment for children with neurodevelopmental challenges, including Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD and Social Communication Deficits. She is the founder of Embark Counseling Services, LLC, a family-centered mental wellness practice.