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  • Writer's pictureSTACY SHEPHERD

The Role of Play in Child Therapy

I have been a child psychologist since I began my career in psychology 15 years ago. Working with children and adolescents is considered a specific skill as a psychologist – not all psychologists work with this population. In fact, many do not work with children and adolescents at all. And that’s ok because it does require some additional patience and creativity. But I love it and I really enjoy the mix of working across the entire lifespan.

But let’s get back to the main message of this blog – the role of play in therapy. When working with children and adolescents, using play, including games and activities, is essential. Play is the language of children. When I see an adult in my office, they happily sit on the couch and answer questions, talk about their lives, thinking through scenarios, etc. I cannot do this with children.

One of the main differences as I see it between children and adults in therapy is that children are brought to therapy by an adult, usually their parents but it could be their grandparents, foster parents, other carer, etc. Children often do not see themselves as having a problem that requires fixing. They do not know what a psychologist does and how it all works. So one of my first and most important goals in working with children is to make them comfortable and wanting to be there. I do this with play.

We play lots of games at the start, such as Uno (and Uno Attack – if you’re a parent and you don’t have this game, I highly recommend it), Connect 4, and my all time favourite – Exploding Kittens. Yep it sounds a bit gross but it’s a really fun card game that the kids absolutely love. And I’m always on the hunt for new (short and easy) games for kids so if you have any recommendations for me, comment below or send me a message.

The other day I had two different kids in my diary to see me (at different times of course). Both of these kids ran through the door the moment I went to the waiting room. Job one done! They are excited to see me and want to engage. Once this happens, I can start using games as a reward for work completed in session. This goes a bit like this, “we might do some work on the board first then play a game”. Excellent!

Sometimes when we have some particularly difficult work to do, such as being really cognitively involved or a bit difficult to discuss, we might sandwich this with games. This means that I will play a game, do some work then play a game at the end. And sometimes when engagement is reduced as can happen over time, we return to step one and just do games for a session.

Now you may be thinking to yourself – a psychologist charges money to parents to play with children? I actually had someone say this to me once – a fellow psychologist no less (he obviously did not work with children, thank goodness. Even if our entire session is playing games, we talk while playing. Children are often much more open to talking while they are busy playing. It can often be a great transition into the work we do – often on the whiteboard because kids love writing on the whiteboard! I mean who doesn’t really?

And parents – I like to get you involved too! This is not just a drop off service where I fix the child or adolescent. I usually teach a specific skill then ask the child to teach the parent. This way I can check for understanding and ensure that the skill gets practiced at home. Working with children and adolescents is a creative mix of working direct with the child and working direct with parents. Now this is not to say that parents are doing anything wrong – mostly it is just about using some different techniques to manage whatever behaviour is present. Usually working direct with parents is very powerful as the parents are usually the ones that see the behaviour as a problem.

So if you are a parent reading this and you have a child who struggles with anxiety or behavioural difficulties (those are typically the most common issues I see in my office) then maybe it could be worthwhile giving us a call to discuss if Broulee Psychology can help. Let’s work together to make change.


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