15 Tips from a Play Therapist


two children playing in leaves

Many times children use behavior to express themselves. They don’t even realize why they’re doing wrong things, but there are some underlying reasons we can help them to understand.

Play therapy is a great tool for this. Children process difficulties or big emotions through play. Children do not have the language to talk things out in the way that adults do. The frontal lobe of the brain, after all, does not fully develop until around age 25. Play therapy is the proven way to reach children in therapy and meet them where they are. For children during play, the toys are the words and the play is their language.

With this piece, I hope to inspire parents who want to both deepen their connections with their kids and help their kids process feelings.

Note: The beauty of individual therapy (including play therapy) is that everything is personalized specifically for you and/or your child. So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If what I mention here sounds like it wouldn’t work, there is a good chance that it won’t. You know your child best, so please seek a licensed professional counselor (at a practice like the one where I work) if further help is needed.

My Top 15 Tips

  1. Show and express “unconditional positive regard.” This is a big word in child-centered play therapy, and it basically means unconditional love. It’s important for a child’s perception to be that you’ll love and accept him or her with any and all flaws. Verbalize it! (“No matter if you make mistakes or not, my love for you doesn’t change. I can feel mad or upset with you, but my love always stays. It is always here, and nothing you can do or I can do will change that.”) This is a big deal, especially after a loss or a divorce. Let your child know that parents may divorce one another when they stop loving each other, but parents never divorce kids.
  2. Practice reflective listening. Make reflections of feeling and deeper reflections of meaning as often as you can. Point out how your child feels, and verbalize it. (“You’re proud of your picture,” or “You’re so mad about that.”) Once you get this down, try making reflections of deeper meaning. It may seem like taking a stab at how he’s feeling, but even if you’re wrong, he’ll correct you. (“You don’t want to go to that restaurant because it reminds you of when I had a big argument with your dad.”)
  3. Frequently say what I call “you statements.” Point out specific things as encouragement rather than general praise (which tends to feel like something out of their control). So instead of “good job,” say, “You worked hard on this math quiz, and so you did really well!” Or “You walked away to calm down before you talked to your brother about this problem.”
  4. Point out the many support systems in place: friendships, family relationships, intelligence, capabilities, creativity, coping skills, faith in God, etc.
  5. When setting limits, make “enforceable statements.” (“You may play with those toys AFTER you’ve picked these up.”)
  6. Give choice proactively to give the child a sense of control. (“Would you like to do your homework at the table or on the floor? Do you want to pick up your toys before dinner or after?”)
  7. Give kids “redos.” This concept is supported by current neuropsychology research. The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind is an exceptional read on this. For example, if your child screams “no” about leaving a party, tell him or her you’re going to show some grace and give a redo. Then if he or she calmly says he or she doesn’t want to leave yet and asks for two more minutes, you may think about compromising. Sometimes you have to wait for your child to get in a calmer state before being able to redo at a later time, but this practice for the brain is incredible for developing patterns and changing the course of future behavior. It is like building up a muscle.
  8. Focus on relaxation and activity to combat the challenge of anxiety. Have a list of mindfulness strategies for your child to learn relaxation. Get involved in exercise of his or her choice as a regular physical activity. Don’t be a helicopter mom, focus on the anxiety, or create “escapes” in which children learn they can’t ever deal! Rather, help them cope through the hard thing. (For example, don’t skip a day at school due to anxiety; it reinforces that the school is indeed scary and to be feared.)
  9. Facilitate acceptance. I often say, “Sometimes things like that happen.” Teach your child to be flexible. This one has to be modeled as well.
  10. Get your children outside, exercising by doing things they love. This is helpful with a vast array of issues: hyperactivity, sensory issues, physical development, behavior problems, social skills, and anxiety.
  11. Play cooperative board games together as a family. Board games are helpful for learning to take turns and share as well as extending focus and attention. Cooperative games (like Peaceable Kingdom games) are great to sprinkle in, so that it’s not always competitive. During group activities like this, to help with your child’s social skills, point out what you see on the faces of those in the group. Verbally state the social cues you see that your child may not pick up on. (“I’m looking at her face, and her nose is squished up like this while her mouth is closed tight. It seems like she didn’t like you making that sound in her ear.”) This must be said in a calm, nonjudgmental tone for it to be effective, or shame will not allow your child to learn from your cues. I call this giving a child feedback, and it also builds trust in the parent/child bond.
  12. Use a distancing technique. This seems to work well with teens and preteens. If it seems too personal for someone to discuss, the child/teen may be able to better express the issue with puppets/toys or by talking about someone else’s situation. Let the child stay in that metaphor to work out the issue, as it can help him or her explore feelings further but with a greater sense of felt safety. (An example would be allowing your child to talk for a long time about how a character in a book or movie might feel.)
  13. Normalize feelings as often as you can. (“I know lots of kids feel that way, too.”) 
  14. Do connecting activities. Have the kids come up with some ideas of rewards they’d like to earn. Rather than the rewards being material items, make them all relationship focused. (“Go with daddy to the park,” or “Take mommy out for a smoothie.”) We focus on bonding specifically for attachment-related issues in adoption or foster care, but it’s good for all to practice.
  15. Let them regress sometimes. If your toddler needs you to rock her like a baby, do it. Meet her need for nurture even if it seems odd because kids regress in difficult times.

Last, in parenting and in life, please remember to have healthy boundaries. It is okay — and even helpful — to say “no” (and not just to your kids). Regularly schedule things for yourself that feel like self-care. 

Understand that children aren’t going to process as you and I do. This is why we have play therapy. Children won’t use vocabulary in the ways we do to process thoughts and feelings. They’re only little once! I encourage you to accept your child’s developmental stage, with both its strengths and limitations; you’ll reduce frustrations for yourself and simultaneously increase confidence in your kiddos.

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Amber has been married to her college sweetheart from Texas A&M, Kyle, for 11 years. They encountered the difficulty of infertility, and it became the biggest blessing of their lives when it pushed them to pursue adoption. Both of their kids (Willow and Jonas) were born in China and adopted as toddlers; attachment has been a beautiful and unique story with each of them. Amber used to teach and then followed her passion to help children as a school counselor before becoming a mom. Although Amber stays at home with her children now, one day a week she gets to practice play therapy as a licensed professional counselor at Family Connections Counseling in Colleyville. Faith, family, and friends are especially important to Amber. On a day off, you can find her playing games, laughing, reading, talking, sleeping, watching a movie, or enjoying family time outside.


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