Setting Up Play Therapy for Success

How can you get maximum results in play therapy without burning out?

No one really gets into the mental health field to achieve mediocre results for their clients. You get into the mental health field because you want to help people live better lives. You want to help them overcome their mental health challenges and thrive. To help children and adolescents get maximum results in play therapy, you need to include their parents/guardians. (For clarity, use of the term “parents” refers to parents and guardians in the caretaking role for children and adolescents.)


Can’t you just meet with the child or adolescent and fill in parents with a quick text or check-in at the end of their session? You can, but will you really have the same impact if you don’t have a system in place to fully engage parents and develop strong therapeutic rapport with them?

The challenge for play therapists to consider is this question:

How do I meet the needs of my young client, and what does that “look like” from a clinical decision-making standpoint?

Most mental health master’s degree programs, except for marriage/couples and family programs, teach psychotherapy from a predominately individual therapy framework. Children and adolescents live within the context of families and are dependent upon their parents to facilitate a healthy environment for them. It’s been my experience that treating the child means you’re treating the family system. Children bring their family psychologically, socially, and emotionally into the treatment process through their belief systems, ability to cope with stressors, values, and relationship skills. Engaging parents in the change process allows you to have a greater impact to facilitate long lasting change. Parents have the ability to facilitate necessary shifts within the family system to bring about changes for your client. And, as an added bonus – parents facilitate healthy changes for the whole family!

play therapy and expressive arts

On a practical level, managing the treatment process for your child/adolescent clients also means managing contacts and interactions with their parents. Ensuring you communicate with parents between sessions and providing “updates” can be time consuming and frustrating. Phone calls, texts, and emails can be time consuming for your already overwhelmed schedule. So, how can you maximize treatment outcomes for your child/adolescent clients without overwhelming your schedule? How do you ensure contact with parents without getting overwhelmed by your workload and getting burned out? These are the million-dollar questions for play therapists.

Over the last 30 years working in the mental health field with children, adolescents, and families, I’ve learned a few strategies to help me “work smarter not harder.” That’s the key – making sure you include parents in the play therapy process as active partners without overwhelming your schedule and getting burned out. Is it possible? Yes!

Here are a few tips to help you create a plan so that you can get maximum success for your clients by engaging their parents without feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and burned out.

Tip #1 Figure Out Your Expectations

First, identify your expectations about how the play therapy process works. That includes how parents will be involved. To figure out your expectations, you first need to identify your clinical lens. What do I mean by clinical lens? Your clinical lens is the theoretical model you use to understand what’s going on with your clients and how to address it in treatment. 

(I wrote another article on the topic of clinical decision-making – Conceptualizing Play Therapy Treatment … A Standard for Excellence) 

In a nutshell, theoretical models will generally fall into one of these categories: individual psychotherapy theories, family systems theories, and attachment theory models. If you view play therapy from a solely individual clinical lens, then your decision-making process will generally not include processes to integrate parents as a partner in the change process. You’ll view parents as more of an adjunct part of treatment rather than a critical agent of change for their child. I’ve heard play therapists refer to themselves as the therapeutic agents of change for the child. While I understand this philosophy, I don’t fully agree with it.

It’s my belief that viewing treatment for children and adolescents solely using an individual psychotherapy lens is barrier to maximizing success for your clients. Children and adolescents live within the context of family. They don’t exist alone, and they can’t sustain their independence because they’re not developmentally at that stage in their lives. I’m not suggesting you don’t use individual play therapy sessions. I’m suggesting that you broaden your clinical perspective to use a family system and/or attachment lens to understand your client within the context of their family and environment. 

Using a family system and/or attachment lens allows you to view your clients within a broader context. This broader context ensures you recognize ways in which you can integrate parents as essential to the change process. This will shift your conceptualization of who needs to be involved in the play therapy process and what that “looks like,” i.e. frequency of parent sessions and/or family/parent-child play therapy sessions. Once you expand your clinical lens to include family system and/or attachment theories, you can identify what are your expectations for the role of parents in the change process. 

Tip #2 Figure out Your Plan

Once you identify your expectations, you need to figure out what that “looks like” regarding parent involvement. This will empower you to communicate with confidence to parents how they will be involved in treatment from the very first contact with them. When parents call you seeking counseling for their child, you can communicate to them how often you’ll meet with their child and how often you’ll meet with them. You’ll communicate your expectations about their involvement in treatment and why their involvement is critical to help their child.

You also need to figure out your expectations for how you’ll communicate with parents between sessions. What are your expectations for how parents can communicate with you and how you’ll respond to their communications, i.e. texts, emails, phone calls. This is key for saving time in your schedule and managing potential “poop piles” if there is not clarity about these expectations. This includes your own expectations because you’ll need to maintain boundaries around these expectations.

Tip #3 The Benefits of a Plan

What are the benefits of figuring out a plan for managing parent engagement? If you have a dedicated process in place to meet with parents, this will decrease “updates” between sessions. I’m not a fan of communicating with parents to discuss therapeutic issues using text or email. There are a lot of reasons this is not effective, including difficulty ensuring privacy. If you’re providing updates in between sessions or the last “5 minutes” (it’s never 5 minutes) of a session, then you don’t have incentives for parents to meet with you in person. You may end up feeling like you’re “chasing” parents to get them to schedule an appointment with you. You can save time and avoid burning out by identifying your expectations for parent involvement from the beginning and a plan for how you'll communicate with parents between sessions.

It’s important for parents to give you feedback and inform you about issues as they arise. They are partners in the change process with you. That’s how the magic happens to maximize positive long-term treatment outcomes for your young clients. Having a plan about how you want parents to provide that information to you and how you’ll respond provides a clear understanding about how you work with your clients. Once you’re clear about your expectations and identify a plan that engages parents and protects your time, then you’ll feel more comfortable with what you are communicating to parents and how you communicate it.

Tip #4 Expand Your Clinical Lens

Using a family system and/or attachment lens for play therapy treatment influences your decision-making about parent involvement. I like to meet with parents at least monthly without their child present so that we can build rapport, develop a partnership, and a collaborative plan to help their child. When I set this expectation and communicate this to parents, it reinforces the necessity of monthly parent sessions. It reduces the amount of time I spend with updates between sessions and responding to phone calls and texts. I communicate to parents that we’ll discuss the issues in our next parent session. If an appointment is needed sooner, then I ask them when they are available for a meeting. In this way, I spend less time chasing parents because I’ve set the expectation and communicated to them that their active participation and attendance is a requirement. Setting this expectation and communicating it to parents from the very first phone call ensures you build rapport to engage them as active partners in the change process. If you’ve built trust with parents, then you’re more likely to engage them in sessions with their children at some point in the treatment process.

Okay, this might seem a bit harsh, and it needs to be said - it’s time to stop blaming parents for not engaging in the way you need them to engage in the play therapy process.  If you don’t actually have a framework that clearly helps them understand their importance in the healing process and how you'll communicate between sessions then you can't hold them responsible for not complying with your expectations. There.  I said it.  Here's why I said it - parents take their lead from you because you’re the “expert.” Whether or not you feel the like expert, you are the expert. Identifying your expectations for how parents will be involved in the change process and then creating a plan will maximize success for your clients and save time (and frustration) to avoid burnout.

What now? I encourage you take about 15 minutes to write out your expectations. Then take another 15 – 30 minutes to write out a plan that includes how you expect parents to be involved in their child’s treatment, why those expectations are critical for success, what that “looks like,” and how you’ll manage communication between sessions. Then begin to inform parents – ones of current clients and any new clients who call you moving forward.


  1. Examine your clinical lens and see if this lens provides solid clinical infrastructure/scaffolding to support the child within context of their environment/family.
  2. That clinical lens guides all your clinical decision-making including how you conceptualize the role of parents in the change process.
  3. Once you figure out your clinical lens then you can figure out what are your expectations for how parents need to be involved in the change process.
  4. Once you figure out your expectations for parent involvement then you can develop a plan. You can communicate your expectations for parent involvement and what that “looks like” during the play therapy process. This includes how you’ll manage between session communication.

Check out my YouTube Channel to watch the replay of my Live steam video on this topic - Setting Up Success in Play Therapy [How Can You Get Maximum Success in Play Therapy?]

Categories: Attachment-Focused Family Play Therapy, Play Therapy