What’s the Role of the Play Therapist in Play Therapy?

Parents are critical partners in the play therapy process. Play therapists need to ensure they engage parents as change agents in play therapy.

What’s your role to facilitate transformation for your clients in play therapy?

How do you help your young clients make the most progress in play therapy?

These seem like such fundamental questions for play therapists who probably know this in your sleep, so why would I even ask these questions?

As play therapists, you already know you’re responsible to think about what interventions to use and what type of play therapy to provide.

What about how to engage parents in the transformation process?

What’s your role to figure out how to get parents more actively involved in the change process?

What’s the best way to engage parents in play therapy?

These are important questions to ask yourself about your role as the facilitator of transformation for your young clients and their parents. For clarity, when referring to parents in this article, the term “parents” is synonymous for any adult in a caregiving/guardian role.

What’s Your Role Engaging Parents?

Here’s the thing - parents are looking to you as the expert to know how to help their child. Period, end of story – you’re the expert. And as the expert who can help their child overcome their difficulties, it’s important for you to consider the questions I’ve asked above. Answering these questions allows you to identify what your expectations for parent engagement are and why is parent engagement critical for their child to make progress in play therapy. Once you figure that out, then you need to communicate your expectations to parents during your first contact with them.

You need to explain to parents how you’ll work with their child and that it’s your expectations parents will be actively involved in treatment. You need to explain to parents what that means. I always recommend you explain to parents how often you’ll meet with their child, including the length of the sessions. I also recommend you explain to parents how often you expect to meet with them, whether their child will be present in those sessions, and what those sessions will focus on. You need to clarify if you expect both parents to participate in those sessions when your young client is from a two-parent household. If your client’s parents are divorced/separated, then you need to communicate how you work with divorced/separated parents.

The recent horrifying and tragic school shooting on May 24, 2022, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, underscores the necessity of engaging parents as a general practice in the play therapy process. As play therapists, we know children are part of a family system. Those family systems are diverse, complex, and varied. Nevertheless, children are part of a family system, and their parents play a critical role in their healthy development. Play therapists have an important role helping parents support their children, especially when there are horrifying and overwhelming events happening in the news - locally, nationally, and internationally.

play therapy and expressive arts

For the past two plus years, families have experienced severe stressors in succession on a global level and national level here in the United States. The recent school shooting is another devastating event that exacerbates already overwhelmed families, and mental health professionals.

A recent article in the Deseret News dated 05/25/2022 by Lois M. Collins entitled “Why – And How – Parents Should Manage Their Anxiety After School Shootings,” underscores the importance for child and adolescent mental health professionals to support parents. Collins interviewed several child mental health professionals, including the Association for Play Therapy’s own play therapy professional Dee Ray. Ray is the director for the Center for Play Therapy at North Texas University. In the interview with Collins, Ray stated, “regulated parents make for regulated children. Dysregulated parents increase dysregulation in children.” I love this quote because it highlights the importance of parents for co-regulation with their children.

Children need their parents to help them regulate their emotions, which is a fundamental neurobiological development process for children. Children use their parent’s emotion regulation circuitry via co-regulation while they learn to self-regulate and develop their own emotion regulation circuitry. Collins also interviewed Cathy Kennedy-Paine, Crisis Response Team for the National Association of School Psychologists. Kennedy-Paine stated, “A tragedy like this makes us all fearful. It’s important for parents to understand they will be fearful and upset, but they need to keep their emotions under control while talking to their children. That’s difficult but really critical.” Play therapists are in a prime position to provide support to parents as parents work through difficult issues to support their children.

Link to article: "Why - and How - Parents Should Manage Their Anxiety After School Shootings"

Tips for Engaging Parents

My first tip for engaging parents is to think about children and adolescents within a larger contextual clinical lens. Fundamentally, it’s helpful to think with a family systems and attachment theory clinical lens so you can conceptualize why parents need to be involved as partners in the play therapy process. The number one reason I see play therapists not able to engage parents and feel like they need to “chase” parents to make their parenting appointments, is due to conceptualizing child and adolescent treatment with an individual therapy orientation. Your clinical lens is what guides the way you conceptualize treatment and how you structure treatment, including parental involvement.

Using a family systems and attachment theory lens helps you conceptualize engagement with parents because you’re envisioning the transformation process through a family systems and attachment framework. This framework empowers you to form a strong therapeutic alliance with parents and understand your young client within their environmental context. Using an attachment theory lens allows you to model to parents how to create strong, positive relationships with their children through your teaching and support during parenting sessions. Using a neuroscience lens helps you recognize parents as co-regulators for their children. As you model co-regulation with parents through your support to them and teach then about the neuroscience of emotion regulation, you’re helping parents learn to be effective co-regulators.

My second tip for engaging parents is that you need to figure out what is your “line in the sand” regarding parent’s participation in treatment. Life is challenging and busy for families and parents can be overwhelmed. They may be secretly hoping you’ll “fix” the problem for their child so parents can leave that task to you. After all, you’re the expert, right? Your role when this happens is to first make sure you’re clear with yourself about your expectations for parental involvement, what that “looks like,” and why it’s important. The reason this clarity is necessary is because sometimes you’ll need to therapeutically challenge parents to get their “buy in” for the change process.

Have you ever had a parent ask you to explain something to their child in the child’s individual counseling session about changes parents want their child to make? My response is typically “no” to that request. Then, I work with parents to help them understand their role as a “change agent” for their child is far more critical than me doing that work for them. You’ll need to help parents recognize their role as the therapeutic agent of change for their children. What are you willing to do to therapeutically challenge and hold boundaries if needed to facilitate change? This is where using an attachment lens can help you maintain therapeutic connection while you simultaneously challenge parents by holding therapeutic boundaries. When done effectively, this can create a huge clinical shift for your client’s progress in play therapy.

Finally, how are you setting up the treatment process for success from the start? Identifying your answer to this question will save you a lot of frustration and conflict with parents. By creating a framework for treatment that includes your expectations about how you provide play therapy services to children, adolescents, and their families, you can be much more effective with clients facilitating the change process. Make sure you communicate how often you need to meet with parents to partner with them. Communicate how often you meet with children and adolescents. In an outpatient psychotherapy setting, I like to meet with children and adolescents on a weekly basis for 45 minutes. That’s what I tell parents. I discuss their ability to bring their child to weekly appointments for an estimated nine months, so they have an idea how long treatment lasts and how often they need to be at my office.

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There will be times when you need to make sure you communicate that expectation to parents not only with your words, but also your actions regarding limit setting. It’s also important to clarify with parents how you will communicate with them between sessions, such as responding to emails, phone calls, and texts. For the record, I don’t recommend discussing clinical issues with parents via text or email. It’s easy, and it’s not effective for developing strong therapeutic rapport. Sometimes easier is not better. I don’t do “check ins” with parents for the last “5 minutes” of the child’s sessions because that’s the purpose of the parenting sessions. Those 5-minute “fast food style drive through” parent check-ins are minimally effective and don’t allow the opportunity to develop a strong therapeutic rapport with parents. And those quick “check-ins” are never 5 minutes.

Identifying your expectations and creating a plan for the way in which you provide play therapy services to children, adolescents, and families allows you to be more effective and less burned out. Parents need your support and they’re looking to you to explain to them how the process works. Understanding the importance of parents in the play therapy process is an important task for you to consider for treatment planning.


  • One of the most common reasons I see play therapists not able to engage parents effectively in treatment is due to their Individual therapy “lens” and not recognizing the importance of engaging parents as partners in the change process.
  • Thinking about your child/adolescent client within context means you look at them within a family systems and attachment theory lens. This means you’ll recognize the importance of engaging parents so that parents can be present and effective when supporting their children through challenging situations and experiences.
  • Figure out your expectations for parental involvement and how you will communicate those expectations not only with your words but also your actions. That means figuring out your “line in the sand” – aka non-negotiables because you know what is needed to help their child succeed. Remember – you’re the expert and parents are looking to you for guidance.

Interested in learning more about being an effective play therapist? Check out my upcoming trainings and my online play therapy & expressive arts supervision/consultation services. My passion is empowering you to be a master play therapist – like Gandalf the White or Yoda in the play therapy world for your clients. May the Force be with you. (okay – I’ll stop now, LOL).

Categories: Play Therapy