Maybe you are experiencing some behavioral issues with your child, or they have recently been diagnosed. Perhaps the school or your pediatrician has recommended that your child should go to counseling. Maybe your child has anxiety and, as a result, has trouble sleeping, or they are grieving the loss of a loved one. Children at any stage can benefit from counseling when placed with the right therapist. In fact, there are therapists who are trained to work with children starting as early as infancy. Perhaps you are wondering where to start.
It is important to find a therapist that is trained to work specifically with children as the therapeutic approaches to working with children are unique for younger, less verbal clients. A skilled therapist, trained in these approaches, can target and customize the therapy process to the developmental needs of the child. Children, even of the same age, land across a wide spectrum of verbal expression. There are many reasons for this variability, including developmental processes or exposure to trauma. The brain is affected by trauma, and this can make a difference in a child’s emotional and cognitive development (Booth and Jernberg, 2010). Child therapists understand this variability and have a toolbox of techniques to help a child express themselves, whether verbally or through play. Working with children in therapy will look different than working with adults, but still yields the same positive results.
When children come to counseling, they may be feeling upset from stress in their lives and anxious about coming to therapy, but a skilled child therapist will help create an environment for kids that is calm, safe and fun. We can learn a lot from children, and play is the therapeutic “work” that children do in order to heal and express emotion. Depending on the situation and the therapist, parents and caregivers can be invited into the space with the child to restore relationships as well as assist the parents in developing skills to help their children. There are a variety of therapies that aid a counselor in discovering what a child thinks and feels. Some of the therapies I will briefly address here are play therapy, Theraplay, and sand tray therapy.
What are Play Therapy, Theraplay, and Sand Tray Therapy?
Each of these therapies are vast and have much to offer. Play therapy focuses on creating a unique therapeutic relationship between therapist and child so that the child can feel empowered to express him or herself through a variety of activities and toys in the playroom. A child’s natural language is play. Children sometimes replay a scene using puppets, show the effects of a divorce through dolls, or use figurines in a sand tray to show how they see their world and how they are feeling both metaphorically and literally. “Often children have difficulty verbalizing their feelings when directly questioned, either because they are guarded or they do not connect with those feelings they find most threatening” (Hall, Kaduson, & Schaefer, 2002, p. 515).
When working with a trained play therapist, the toys in the play therapy room are specifically selected to help children express themselves and not just to keep them “busy.” Children are not cognitively developed to the point where they can fully express themselves through words. Sometimes adults assume that children are not affected by certain experiences because they have not shared about it and seem to be doing fine, but that is not always true. For this reason, it is important to find a therapist who can enter the child’s world rather than forcing the child to enter the adults’ world, in order to better understand the child (Sweeney, 1997).
Theraplay, an interactive, relationship based, and multisensory therapy, is designed to help families “reconnect and fully engage” with one another. Because the focus is on attachment and improving relationships, it is effective in working with a variety of issues, including children from foster homes and those who were adopted (Booth & Jernberg, 2010, p. 343). Theraplay involves the parents or primary caregivers in the sessions, leading parents and children to become closer through playful interactions. The “emphasis on attunement and empathy” helps create a space in which “true and sensitive connection” forms where children and parents are able to love and care for each other. (Booth & Jernberg, 2010, p. 343). When such connections are made, the child’s needs for comfort, nurture, and support are met, and a secure base from which the child can explore the world begins to form. This kind of play “between parents and children…nurtures a lifelong capacity to relate to others in harmony and joy” and “prepares the child to find his/her place in the world of relationships”, (Booth & Jernberg, 2010, p. 343).
Sand tray therapy is an expressive and projective therapy that is both flexible and adaptive. It can integrate a wide variety of therapeutic approaches (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2017). One of the goals of sandtray therapy is to “…help the client process the presenting issue-nonverbal or verbally-with sand tray therapy as the processing tool or approach”. Similar to the toys in the play therapy room, the miniature figurines in sand tray therapy should be intentional and deliberate. These figurines can enable a child to show and tell their view of their world and feelings. Whether it is a distant parent figurine far away from the rest of their family, or a certain miniature picked to represent someone they feel unsafe around, the results can be enlightening to the counselor. Sand tray therapy can often help when dealing with clients who have suffered some sort of trauma or abuse as well (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2017). These sorts of methods are critical in order to help children process their emotions and experiences that talk therapy can not always do alone.
Some Concluding Thoughts
With time and patience as the natural therapeutic process unfolds, issues come to the surface, and solutions will follow once the therapist gets to the core of what is going on in the child. In general, children are just learning how to feel, come to grips with their emotions, and then struggle at times with how to express and regulate them. This is where the properly trained therapist can be most beneficial in discovering the mind, heart, and soul of a child. At Cherry Hill Counseling, we have therapists who are trained in each of these therapy modalities for children. If you are interested, please feel free to reach out to us at Cherry Hill.
Booth, P. & Jernberg, A. (2010). Theraplay helping parents and children build better relationships through attachment-based play. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hall, T., Kaduson, H. & Schaefer, C. (2002). Fifteen effective play therapy techniques. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(6), pp. 515-522.
Homeyer, L. & Sweeney, D. (2017). Sandtray therapy. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Sweeney, D. (1997). Counseling children through the world of play. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.