I have a long standing history working with children in a variety of different contexts; I’ve always known my future career would involve helping children. It all started back in Bessemer, Michigan where I spent a lot of time hanging out with my “little” sister and the other kids in the neighborhood. They were all younger than me, but I enjoyed my time with them and I certainly enjoyed being the oldest (and in my mind, the smartest, obviously). My first job was working at a local church watching children during the service (if you don’t count babysitting) and this transitioned to a handful of jobs teaching infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and at the elementary school level. In recent years I have started to transition from teaching to providing therapy. Therapy brought forth my first experiences with adolescents, who I also fell in love with helping. Throughout the years in both career fields, I have been honored and blessed to meet many different children and their families and to get to know their story and be a part of their story. One question I often hear is “How do I know if my child needs therapy?” Another common comment is, “We don’t know what to do anymore. What should we do?” As I mention often to everyone, children unfortunately don’t come with a manual. Even with advanced training in child development and experience working with children, there are times when even I’m not sure how to best approach situations or behaviors with my own kids. We need to stop comparing ourselves to parents seen on social media and I often need to remind myself of this advice as well. There is no right way. Certainly there are wrong ways, but for a majority of the population, we do the best we can.
Another question that often arises focuses on how a child can benefit from therapy given their developing levels of understanding, communicating, and verbal expression. Therapy for children is not traditional “lie down on a sofa and talk” and it would be developmentally inappropriate for this to happen. Certainly there is talking involved, but not at the same level one would expect from an adolescent or an adult. This is where Play Therapy helps a child with understanding and appropriately expressing emotion, learning skills, and healing.
According to the Association for Play Therapy, research has demonstrated time and time again that children learn through play and express themselves via play. Landreth and Russ (as cited in Association for Play Therapy) share that play relieves feelings of stress and boredom, connects people to people, stimulates creative thinking, regulates emotions, boosts our ego, and helps with practicing skills and roles needed for survival. Play during childhood helps support learning and development. Play is strategically used to help children express their troubles even when they do not have the ability to express thoughts and feelings (Gil as cited in Association for Play Therapy). Therapists use play to help children learn behaviors and how to express themselves in a socially expected or appropriate manner and the relationship that develops between therapist and a child can provide an emotional experience necessary for healing (Moustakas as cited in Association for Play Therapy). Play therapy allows children to find solutions to problems, learn skills and practice new skills, and cope with difficult emotions.
The Association for Play Therapy reports that research supports the effectiveness of play therapy for children with a variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems that include: life stressors such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness; stressful experiences; physical and sexual abuse; domestic violence; and natural disasters. Therapy isn’t intended to be a lifelong engagement, but serves as a means in which a child can help heal from difficulties or learn ways to adjust and adapt to life experiences and intense emotions. While length of treatment will vary, the ultimate goal is for a child to learn, develop, and implement skills with increasing independence and in multiple environments (home, school, community) without the assistance of the therapist. So my answer to “How do I know if my child needs therapy?” is that all children (and adults) at some point in their lives would benefit from therapy. It’s something worth trying when as a parent you are unsure of what to do next. I find each experience with a child to be unique and genuinely enjoy spending time with your child as we navigate and problem solve difficulties. I continue to be honored and blessed to be a part of children’s life stories in a positive way when life can be negative or scary or the future can be uncertain. Working with children has truly been the path I was meant to walk on in my life.
Association for Play Therapy. Retrieved from: http://www.a4pt.org/