I have recently been receiving more referrals from family attorneys whose clients are in the middle of heated and difficult custody battles. Understandably, the kids are struggling to make sense of the new situation and are absorbing some of the anger and worry of the circumstances. Sometimes, during or after treatment, I am asked to write up a report for an attorney based on what transpired during therapy. Other times, I am called into court as a witness in the case. 

In either circumstance, I have become aware of a pervasive belief within the legal system regarding play therapy: it is misunderstood and criticized needlessly. Attorneys and judges want to know if there is empirical validation for the intervention (the answer is yes). They also want to know how I determine what is going on, and how I make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the child (the answer is hard to explain). Finally, they are not sure how playing with a child teaches me anything about the situation or helps with the presenting struggles and concerns (the answer is play is a language).

Empirical Validation

Studies have been conducted on play therapy and its effectiveness for decades. Without boring you with all of the statistical details, play therapy has been shown effective for almost every childhood concern – behavior, abuse, trauma, attention, focus, aggression, divorce, grief, move, and more. Children gain coping skills and internal resources while they play with a trained therapist to help them process where they are and what they want to change. Data shows that play therapy produces a reduction in unwanted behaviors and an increase in desired behaviors.

Play Themes

There are thirty or so play themes that typically emerge in play therapy with children. Kids will only process a few at a time, and will continue playing that theme through until they reach closure or reconciliation. Trained therapists are able to connect what is happening in play to where the child is in real life. The therapist also recognizes that certain themes relate to situations and traits. Further, themes follow a hierarchy as needs are met before wants.

Toys as Words

One of the basic driving principles of play therapy is that play is the child’s language, and therefore toys are his words. What kids do not have the verbal or cognitive ability to express can be communicated through playing. If the child needs to create a better ending to an event, he does so through re-writing the story through play. If the child needs to feel more confident, he will use toys to practice building self-esteem and learning of what he is capable. No matter what the child needs, she can create the solution through play when a therapist works with her to do so.

Psychology Vs. Counseling

Finally, another interesting phenomenon is that opposing counsel is often quick to dismiss my credentials, citing that I am “not a psychologist.” That is completely true, but irrelevant. Child-centered play therapy is rooted in counseling, not psychology. Psychologists are trained very differently, and approach treatment with different tenets and foundational principles. While there are pediatric psychologists who have been trained in play therapy, it is still centered in the fundamentals of counseling practice. My PhD is in counseling, which allows me to focus on children’s mental health while exclusively implementing play and filial therapy with my clients and their families.