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The healing power of Play Therapy

By “Tamarin Epstein, Educational Psychologist

Children’s games are hardly games.
“Children are never more serious than when they play”.
Michel de Montaigne, statesman & philosopher, Essays.

Play therapy is psychotherapy for children. It is often the treatment of choice, for children aged between 3 and 11 years. Play is a child’s natural means of expression and communication. Play therapy is a process of one-on-one therapeutic interaction with the child, by using both free play and talking. Play therapy originated in the work of psychodynamic therapists, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. It represents a solidly grounded method of treatment, rooted in many yeas of documented research and clinical practice.

The psychologist or therapist supports the child in exploring and working through fears, anxieties and conflicts troubling him/her, at the child’s own pace. The therapist-child relationship evolves in a unique way, allowing access to the child’s inner world. The therapist’s job is to observe, analyse and interpret themes in the child’s play. The therapist will offer insights and help the child make sense of confusing, painful, conflicted, traumatic, or even scary thoughts, memories and emotions. The playroom becomes a “safe space” (accepting, gentle, trustworthy and familiar) for the child to relieve psychological tension, receive unconditional emotional support, and to be challenged, in facing and processing their distress. Play therapy works with psychological healing on conscious and unconscious levels, promoting a deep healing process.

Your child may benefit from play therapy if suffering from:

  • Trauma (a traumatic event, abuse, an accident or illness)
  • Loss (a death in the family, separation or divorce)
  • Emotional problems
  • Behavioural difficulties
  • Adjustment issues (adjusting to change)
  • Developmental delays/difficulties
  • Social problems
  • Low self-esteem

Because younger children may not always even be aware of, or able to identify and talk about their painful feelings, it helps to look out for behavioural signs of distress, especially if these are ongoing or seem different to usual.

What to watch for:

  • Regression – a child may regress to behaviour patterns of a younger child – such as bedwetting, thumb sucking, clingy or needy behaviour.
  • Moodiness – the child may become withdrawn, lethargic, sad, tearful, sulky, irritable or angry. They may lose interest in activities, friends or school.
  • Anxious or fearful behaviour.
  • Tantrums and oppositional, aggressive or self-harming behaviour.
  • Attention-seeking behaviour.
  • Strange/odd behaviour.
  • Nightmares or bedtime fears.
  • Change in eating habits.
  • Problems reported by the school (social problems , disruptive behaviour, concentration problems or hyperactivity).

Deciding on play therapy for your child involves a leap of faith on the part of parents. Like all therapy, it involves consistent commitment and effort on the part of the child, parents and therapist. A child’s presenting problem may even worsen for a while, as part of the healing process. Play therapy is a collaborative effort between the child, parents and therapist/psychologist. Teamwork and regular parent feedback sessions are essential.

If you are concerned about your child, contact PsychMatters on (011) 450-3576 or email info@psychmaters.co.za to book a consultation (parent intake interview). The psychologist will discuss the issues and background with you, and recommend a helpful course of action (such as play therapy, or another intervention such as an assessment or parent counselling).

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