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For those of you who are not subscribers or followers, in October 2023, I was credentialed by the Association of Play Therapy as a Registered Play Therapist™ aka RPT™. (Yayyyy!)
In an effort to spread the word about what a Registered Play Therapist™ is and what play therapy is I am writing this blog. And, for those of you who may have heard of “play therapy” you may still have some questions about it. Or, maybe this is your first time ever hearing the term.
Below are some quick answers to what an RPT™ is, as well as other common questions parents have about how working with an RPT™ may help their family.
Q1: What does a Registered Play Therapist™ do?
RPTs use play therapy – a form of child therapy – to help children younger than 12 years old process their emotions and experiences in language that makes sense to the child: play.
Just like you wouldn’t offer therapy in Spanish to someone who only speaks a little bit of English, you wouldn’t offer talk therapy to a child, especially if they are between the ages of 3-8. The main reason for this is that children, especially young children, don’t fully process and verbally communicate their emotions as effective as when they are playing.
Play therapy is an evidence-based practice for children, which means that peer-reviewed research had and continues to strongly supports its effectiveness in helping children manage their emotions and other mental health challenges.
A Registered Play Therapist needs to go through a rigorous training and supervised experience process so as to learn how to offer your child a safe sanctuary where your child’s language of play is deeply understood. We also learn about the certain toys and play interventions that strategically help children express their emotions, process experiences, and modify those behaviors that parents and even children themselves find overwhelming.
Q2: What does a play therapy session look like?
The exact structure of a session varies according to the type of theory being used by the play therapist as well as where they're at in the therapy process. When it comes to what my play therapy sessions entail, here are the general basics:
Q3: I’m worried that my child isn’t doing anything therapeutic, and is just “playing.” How do I know that play therapy is working?
This is a common question parents ask me, and I completely get it especially when you ask your child "What did you talk about or do in therapy" and they respond, "I just played."
When you aren’t informed about what play therapy is and what its goals are, it’s only natural to think: My child can play with toys at home. Why would I take them to a therapist’s office to do that?
Something to keep in mind is that play therapy isn’t just about playing – its about uses tools of play for therapeutic healing.
Here's an analogy you may understand, if you have worked with your own therapist. By now after having worked with your own therapist, you should see how talking to your therapist isn’t the same as talking to your friends. While you’re technically “talking” to both, your psychotherapist intentionally uses these the conversations you have to help guide you on examining yourself, to identify patterns, deepen self-awareness, challenge dysfunctional thoughts, and more. With your therapist, it really isn’t “just” talking.
Play therapy is like that. Yes, your child plays both at home and during therapy. But during play therapy, I’m using the tools of play to help your child meet their emotional and behavioral goals – whatever those may be.
Another phenomenon that is often occurring during play sessions, is the therapist is reflecting the child's likes and dislikes about the toys they are playing with which gives the child a sense of being seen and heard and helps build their self-esteem.
In terms of how to tell if it’s working, that is going to involve more than just asking your child. RPTs are constantly observing the child’s behavior and measuring even the smallest amount of changes to see if there’s been progress. This progress is then discussed with parents in different ways depending on the therapist.
During these discussions, we will know therapy is working when we see a decrease in the behaviors that brought your child into therapy (whether it’s tantrums, negative self-talk, separation anxiety, or something else) and an increase in their ability to manage their own big emotions.
Q4: Do I (The Parent) Get to Meet With the Therapist Too?
Yes! As far as I'm concerned, parents are the people who spend the most time with their child, and the person who’s most likely to be able to notice any changes within the child and at home.
Therefore, I don't consider myself an expert on your child, rather a knowledgeable professional about various issues related to children. Since you are the expert, I do require that a child’s parent(s) is involved in therapy too so that we can facilitate change faster than if I was just working with the child.
Being involved in session, in my practice, entails meeting monthly. You will tell me what struggles and behaviors are happening at home and I will tell you what I observe in the playroom. I also help parents understand where the changes are happening, as well as help build their parenting skills so that at some point, I'm no longer needed because the parent and their child are managing well on their own.
Q5: How long does play therapy last?
It’s understandable to want to know how long your child will need to be in play therapy. The truth is that I can’t answer this question before meeting with your child and understanding the dynamics of the situation.
Generally, in my experience, it takes 4 to 8 sessions for a child to really trust me and show me their struggles through play. Usually, by this time, I have a good sense of what they need – as well as what you need as the parent. From there, I then give parents a better sense of how long therapy will last, provided no other issues come up but I can tell you there is no magic number.
For those who want so hard numbers, when doing play therapy, I typically see clients once a week and have worked with children for as little as 4 months to as long as 2 years. It really all depends on the child’s needs as well as other factors.
Q6: What should I tell my child about play therapy?
The truth is that – unfortunately – therapy still has a pretty high level of stigma attached to it, despite how far we’ve come in mental health awareness. Part of reducing that stigma is to tell your child about therapy just like you would tell them about any other health appointment. Short and sweet.
I often encourage the parent(s) I work with to tell their child that coming to play therapy is like going to their pediatrician when they have a bad cold, only the play therapist will not give them any shots or medicine. Coming to play therapy is about figuring out how to manage the big emotions that sometimes take over and make the child feel bad. The therapist is there to help the child learn what is bothering them and how to deal with it. Tailored responses for what to say to your child is usually provide during our initial parent session.
Q7: What if we don’t like the Play therapist?
Building a trusting relationship with your therapist is key to success, so this is a valid question. What happens if you, or your child, don’t like the play therapist?
This is why I offer parents to meet with me first and then I meet with the child. During this first meeting, you can get a sense for me and how I work and whether you think I would be a good fit for your child. Remember - you are the expert!
If we move ahead with your child coming in to meet me, I will then spend time playing and building trust with your child. I can say that 99.9% of the time, children leave that first session with me asking when they can come back and talking about how they liked the playroom. Granted, I’m not everyone’s “cup of tea” but that is what makes therapy so special. It is all about connection. No connection = no trust = no progress.
Overall, with my experience of working with various ages, connecting with children ages 3 to 8 has never been an issue for me because it’s where I thrive! But, if your child or you don’t connect with me or another therapist, then you definitely have the right to decide whether or not to move forward and if you are working with me, I'm more than happy to help find you someone you can connect with.
Do you still have other questions about what a Registered Play Therapist™ does and what play therapy looks like? I’d love to hear from you – please shoot me an email!
Learn more about play therapy and online parent support groups!
I also offer a few different support groups and workshops for parents. Currently, I’m enrolling for my Single Moms Support Group for Women of Color, designed specifically for single moms who identify as a women of color and want to connect with other moms who understand the struggles of raising children in a single-parent household and want to raise their children differently than how they were raised. Learn more about this group here – seats are limited!
And, in February of 2024, I’ll also be running another Workshop – registration coming soon!
I hope to see you at one of those places soon. As always, thank you for reading!
Christine M. Valentín is a Registered Play Therapist™ who helps children 3-8 struggling with managing their emotions, Parents- who want to improve their parenting skills and Adults - who are concerned about an aging parent. As a Latina therapist, with over 10 years of private practice experience, Christine loves helping people become a more confident version of themselves and develop better relationships within their family. To read her other blog posts, click here.
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