4 Tips to Use Family Play Therapy Like a Jedi Master

Using family play therapy sessions in play therapy effectively can facilitate significant change and healing for children and their family members.

Becoming a play therapist of excellence requires knowledge, skill and training…

… yep, like a Jedi Master! I love a good Star Wars metaphor.

Why be mediocre? It doesn’t really help your clients.

For me, being effective to help my young clients in play therapy means understanding my client within the context of their family to understand what’s going on and who can be support resources for my young client.

Happy latino family with two young children


Here’s a case example to consider the benefits of integrating family play therapy into your treatment milieu (not a real client for privacy reasons and based on common presenting issues and use of family play therapy in treatment over many years)

Mother, Susan, brought her 6-year-old son, James, for counseling because he was throwing tantrums that lasted anywhere form 30 minutes to all day. James wouldn’t do what he was asked to do, he was argumentative about “everything,” fighting with his younger his 4-year-old brother, and being aggressive to his brother who was hesitant to be around James.

Sound familiar to many of the clients on your caseload?

Susan was exhausted and didn’t know what to do. Susan and James’ father had a family history of addiction and James’ parents were never married. James’ father was no longer in James’ life. Susan hadn’t used drugs in over 8 years and only drank alcohol occasionally. Susan had new husband, Jared, and they had a stable relationship. Jared had a good relationship with James and his brother. Susan and Jared didn’t know what to do to help James manage his exhausting emotional outbursts.  These emotional outbursts were draining for James and his parents.  Parents were feeling like failures and looking to the therapist, Taylor, for help. Taylor asked Susan about her ability to use co-regulation effectively with James to help him regulate his strong emotions. Susan said nothing was working because James argued with her all the time so they were at odds most of the time.


What can you do to help this client and help parents? (Hint … family play therapy)

Taylor worked with Susan to use attachment-based parenting strategies and taught her about co-regulation. Taylor explained the neuroscience behind emotion regulation and the importance of co-regulation to help James develop healthy emotion regulation “circuitry” so that he can eventually learn how to self-regulate as he grew older.

Taylor used family play therapy sessions to explore relationship patterns and help the family develop effective relationship skills. These family play therapy sessions revealed the relationship patterns within the family that were problematic as well as strengths for the family.  By seeing the family relationship patterns in "real time," Taylor was able to help family members change those issues and strengthen healthy relationship patterns using play therapy strategies in the sessions. Susan and Jared were able to use the strategies discussed in parent sessions and practice them in the family play therapy sessions. The family relationships in James’s family improved and Susan felt like she had a much better relationship with James. James was able to regulate his strong emotions much more effectively and use his parents for support and co-regulation, which helped him to feel better about himself.


This case scenario for “James” is one that I have seen over and over when using family play therapy sessions as part of the overall treatment approach. Parents and siblings are an important resource for your client to overcome their challenges. Integrating your client’s family members into the play therapy process provides a valuable way to facilitate change within the whole family system and create healthy relationship patterns for generations to come.

That brings us back to … knowledge, skill and training.


Here are four tips to keep in mind to use family play therapy like … yep … totally going there…

… a Jedi Master.


Creating safety for everyone in the family therapy session is key.

Play therapy accesses the therapeutic powers of play so you can establish safety and meet the needs of each child in sessions. This is really important since most families have children of different ages and developmental stages, especially in the early part of treatment. By using play therapy and expressive arts activities tailored to the individualized needs of the family you engage all the children in the play therapy sessions and transformation process. If you can get them playing in the early stage of treatment, then you know from neuroscience that they’re feeling safe and they’ll engage in the treatment process.


Create trust with parents/caregivers

Establishing trust with parents/caregivers is critical so you can get their “buy-in” and willingness to be vulnerable in sessions. People need to feel safe and able to trust you before they will open up and be vulnerable. This is key because if you want parents to risk vulnerability by talking to you about their struggles so you can work with them to make changes, they need to trust you. Building trust with parents/caregivers creates opportunities for them to be more willing to use your help and accept your constructive feedback. This is foundational for the change process and especially helping families through difficult aspects of the treatment process. Change can be difficult, and even painful, so parents need to trust you so they'll be willing to try new things that may not make sense to them.

happy caucasian family with two small children and a dog


Get a VERY thorough bio-psycho-social-spiritual-cultural assessment

Gathering thorough history information in the first session is critical so you can figure out what’s going on with your client and where to start with play therapy and expressive arts interventions. Often times I find that play therapists want to skip this part and then later they struggle to figure out what’s going on with their clients. It also makes it difficult to fully understand all the clinical nuances that are likely contributing to your client’s presenting problem and develop a solid plan to help them.  Recognizing spiritual and cultural factors in the family is often overlooked so make sure to explore those areas of your client's family system.  You’re not going to know all the factors contributing to the problem or identify all the resources and supports for change without a good history. So make sure you don't skip this part when meeting with new clients and their parents/caregivers.  It may add a session or two in the beginning of treatment, but it will save a lot of time later on and make a big difference for your ability to effectively facilitate change.  


Use a framework to guide treatment

When using family play therapy, it’s important to use a framework that is grounded in theory and research-informed to guide you through the treatment process. It’s like having a roadmap (or GPS) to navigate the clinical decision-making process as you’re working with your client and their family. I love using an attachment and neuroscience lens when providing play therapy, most definitely when I’m using family play therapy sessions. 

Over the years, I’ve developed a family play therapy framework to guide me through the treatment process.  This framework is flexible enough for the individualized needs of my clients and their family, and grounded in theory and informed by research. Attachment-Focused Family Play Therapy uses a structure for family play therapy sessions, shows you how to engage parents, and helps you decide what to do in the sessions.  Attachment-Focused Family Play Therapy also provides an attachment-based parenting skills approach that teaches parenting skills so parents/caregivers can co-regulate their children's emotions and create secure attachment patterns within the family.


Takeaways

  • Creating safety for everyone in the family therapy session is key and using play therapy interventions can help family members engage in the therapeutic powers of play to establish safety
  • Create trust with parents so you can empower them to use new skills you’re going to teach them
  • Bio-psycho-social-spiritual-cultural assessment is critical to identify factors that may be contributing to your client’s presenting problems and create a plan to help your clients transform their lives and relationships
  • Use a framework grounded in theory and informed by research to guide the treatment process


If you’re interested in learning more about Attachment-Focused Family Play Therapy, check out my book – Attachment-Focused Family Play Therapy: An Intervention for Children and Adolescents After Trauma (Routledge)

Categories: Attachment-Focused Family Play Therapy