I often talk to parents who hear about play therapy, but think that their ten to fifteen year olds are too mature for it. Although play therapy is traditionally offered to children up to ten years old, the foundational principles that underlie the approach are extremely effective with pre-teens and adolescents as well.
When I see ten to fifteen year olds at my office, I realize that the dolls, dress up clothes, and doctor kit are going to be looked upon with judgment and disinterest. But I am quick to let them know that I work with kids as young as three, and I have to provide play therapy for all ages. What I don’t tell them is that I implement the exact same approach no matter the age because it really isn’t about what you play with – it’s more about the relationship, the environment, and the act of doing something that offers self-discovery and healing.
Carl Rogers, the founder of client-centered therapy, believed that a person needs nothing other than a therapeutic relationship to grow. Child-centered play therapy developed out of the same principle – if children and teens trust the therapist, and the therapist treats them with respect and autonomy, they will work toward healing. When pre-teens and adolescents are in my office, I establish that they are in control of what we do each week. They get to decide whether they want to talk, create a sand tray, draw, complete an activity, or something else entirely. When they clearly understand that there is no therapist’s agenda, they open up to the process of thinking through what will actually help them make sense of life, the world, themselves, and others.
One of the most important factors that contribute to the success of play therapy is that kids are offered a calm, neutral environment to work through emotions, needs, wants, wishes, and frustrations. A child-centered play therapist provides an objective and unbiased eye and ear to whatever the child needs to make sense of. Kids will not express these emotions in front of their peers, siblings, parents, teachers, or others in their lives because they fear the reaction or the consequence. A play room is a neutral and balanced environment that allows for freedom of expression.
When I work with younger kids, they use toys to discover who they are and what the world is like. Pre-teens and adolescents work toward the same goals, but through different means. Older kids prefer very concrete and defined instructions, so activities, projects, and sand trays are valuable in the play room. Regardless of what the teen chooses to do in the session, he or she is still gaining insight and perspective. The more confident teens feel in themselves and in their abilities, the greater they function in and relate to the world around them.
Pre-teens and adolescents present a complex equation for therapy. They are still quite emotionally immature, cognitively incapable of abstract reasoning, and vulnerable to hormonal, physical, emotional, and social influences. However, they possess an ever increasing desire to be independent, responsible, and “grown up,” which leaves them stuck in between two worlds. Greater world view and acceptance of their place in the world comes through the freedom to make therapy what it needs to be – personalized and autonomous. Child-centered play therapy offers that for pre-teens and adolescents, making it highly effective and helpful.