I am a Registered Social Worker with 20 years of experience in social work and 30 years of experience working with children. In the past I have worked as a special education teacher and have worked for Children's Aid. Currently, I run a private practice and am a certified Play and Theraplay therapist. The key difference between the two methodologies, which are commonly used with children, is that Play Therapy is a non-directive form of therapy while Theraplay therapy is directive. In my private practice I work with families, individuals, and I perform parenting assessments for court.
Structure Of The Sessions
In private practice I use a family based structure that is based on the Family Systems Theory. Under this school of thought I look at everything that may influence or impact the child. This includes family, extended family, school, friends, and extra-curricular programs. I currently see families with children of all ages but I usually don't see children younger than five years old. In my experience the age that a child will begin to benefit from therapy depends on the child and their abilities. Though often, even those as young as five can benefit from Play Therapy. In general, I will have a session with the child, and then one with the parents. This process allows me to assess the child and how they react to situations and then address what I have observed with the parents. Using this method I can identify what parental behaviours may be influencing the child. It also allows me to observe the child's behaviour without the influence of their parents being present.
In some situations, the child may not be comfortable without their parents in the room. In these cases I will hold joint sessions with both parent and child. Joint sessions can be beneficial in a few scenarios though I usually avoid holding all sessions this way. Often, these sessions devolve into an argument over a specific incident and it can be difficult to have the group move past the incident. This is not particularly helpful as the issues at hand are often much larger than a specific incident.
Managing Parental Expectations & Learning To Coach
The number one point I stress in my practice is that the sessions are not just for the child, it is crucial to work with the parents too. Often, I explain to parents that they must learn to parent the child they have as opposed to parenting the child they wish they had. Parents will often tell me that they are unhappy because they expect their child to be able to do x, y, and z, for example. The issue here is they are often not evaluating whether that is realistic for their child specifically. In these situations I will work with the parent to understand who their child is and what their particular strengths and weaknesses are. In session I also spend time teaching parents how to coach their child. For example, if your goal were to get a child to shoot a basketball into the basket you wouldn't just hand them a ball and tell them to shoot. Instead, you would show them where to stand, the correct posture, and how to aim. This should be the process used when trying to alter a child's behaviour, they must be coached through it and encouraged along the way.
Avoiding Placing Blame On An Individual
I help parents to understand how they are contributing to the issues. I believe that it is always a family issue not an individual's issue and the solution must come from the family as a whole. Parents must learn what their own triggers are, what the child is doing that is inciting a negative reaction from the parent. It is important to understand that while the identified client may be the child, often times, the parent is also contributing to the issue. This is usually due to inappropriate reactions from the parent when situations arise. Parents sometimes do not know how to mitigate the issue at hand and mistakenly aggravate it with their reaction. A large part of what I teach is non-reactive parenting. This avoids situations where the child acts out in a small way and parents overreact because of past incidents. In parents mind's they often think "I know where this is headed" and so they react based on their assumption of what is going to occur, this is called anticipatory stress. Non-reactive parenting teaches parents to break these negative thought patterns and avoid reacting inappropriately to situations.
Goals of Family Therapy
There are many goals of family therapy and it can help with a wide variety of issues. These include:
- Helping families to properly communicate
- Understanding what is happening within the family and why these issues are occurring
- Repairing fragmented relationships and helping families to bond
- Allowing families to have a space where they can really express themselves and hear one another
- Learning tools to help both children and parents individually and together
- Developing new coping strategies
- Learning how to properly discipline your child
- Understanding how to be a calmer less reactive parent and learning your triggers
- Developing a better understanding of yourself as an individual and parent
- Finding new calming and relaxation techniques
A Few Details
I really recommend that families get help as soon as things seem difficult because waiting just exacerbates difficulties. It is incredibly difficult to break a habit. On average, it takes 21 days to break a habit so the earlier that therapy can intervene, the better. The role of therapists is to remain objective and unbiased because for parents and children it is incredibly difficult to step back from the situation. Therapy allows for everyone to feel validated and voice their concerns in a productive way. It is important that each member of the family feels understood and connected to the therapist. Generally, I will see families once a week at the beginning of the process and once there is significant improvement it will decrease to once a month check ups. In the long term I recommend seeing your therapist every 3 months because sometimes people slip and need a little reminder.