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The Informed Parent

Play In Psychotherapy

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on May. 24, 2004

Often parents ask what exactly a psychotherapist does during therapy sessions with a young child. The ability of a child to create a miniature world for himself is a crucial feature of his development. Some early researchers have proposed that a child’s emotional disturbance, and cognitive and affective difficulties are often associated with a child‘s inability to provide sustained imaginative play.

A major role of the child’s therapist is to help him develop ways to put his private fears, abuse experiences, or exposure to family trauma into manageable chunks. The therapist provides appropriate play equipment in a neutral setting. The play items or games have symbolic representation of the child’s particular troubles or difficulties.

The therapist acts in the role of the mediating parent figure. Play under supervision and under the guidance of a therapist helps the child develop new schema, scripts, and new knowledge paradigms that can reduce the ambiguity, confusion, and fear that their real-life experiences bring. The therapist helps the child develop new ways to look at and cope with these negative feelings. The child is eventually able to generalize these positive experiences in therapy to his everyday life.

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