How Play Therapy Techniques Address Different Issues

Unless you’re a seasoned play therapist yourself, there may be some things about play therapy that you’re not sure you understand. If you’re a parent with a child in play therapy, you’ve likely received some kind of explanation about the process from your child’s therapist, and maybe you’ve even done some additional research on your own in an effort to increase your knowledge.

Many of the articles out there, including a post I’ve written myself discuss the rationale of play therapy. They often mention the significance of the therapist-client relationship, and describe how play is “the natural language of children.” That information is vital to explaining the basis and purpose behind play therapy, but it still sometimes leaves parents wondering:

 “What is the THERAPIST doing while my child plays?”

Some parents may not care too deeply about this. They see improvement in their children, and that’s all they need or want to know. And that’s 100% perfectly okay. But other parents may be a bit more curious about what goes on behind closed doors, and may desire a little more information. And that’s perfectly understandable, too! After all, when we go to the doctor, we fully expect them to explain not just the “why” behind a procedure, but the “how” as well.

Now, the thing is – unlike with medicine, non-directive play therapy is not “prescriptive.” This means that when a parent comes in and tells the therapist that their child has low self-esteem, the therapist is not going to “prescribe” a specific intervention or procedure for treating that symptom, like we’d expect to see at the doctor’s office.  However, problems that are arising at home or school often naturally come out in the playroom all on their own. In other words, a child who exhibits low self-esteem at home is likely going to show some insecurity at some point in therapy. When that happens, the therapist is then given a golden opportunity to respond effectively to the child’s words or behavior, and over time, the challenge appears less and less (both inside the playroom and out).

In order to increase understanding for the more curious of parents, I thought it might be helpful to outline some common problems/reasons parents bring children to therapy, and identify a few basic techniques that play therapists use to address these issues. I also explain why each intervention is helpful. To see these some of techniques in action, watch this video.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems, nor of solutions:

playthertech1.jpgWhy it helps:

  • Shows understanding, which helps decrease anger
  • Is clear about limiting the behavior, but in a non-shaming way
  • Provides an acceptable alternative for releasing anger
  • Puts a name to the feeling, increasing child’s ability to name it in the future

Why it helps:

  • Notices the child’s effort rather than her outcome, which builds intrinsic motivation
  • Succeeding on a task (without adult taking over) builds competence, which builds confidence
  • Any frustration or impatience with the task can be named and validated (increasing child’s ability to name their own feelings in the future)
  • Therapist’s focused attention on the child’s work makes child feel valued

playthertech3.jpgWhy it helps:

  • Shows confidence in the child’s ability
  • Therapist’s supportive, non-judgmental presence increases child’s courage
  • Accomplishing task on own increases child’s willingness to show independence again in the future
  • Increases problem-solving skills (child has to figure out own way of completing task)

playthertech4.jpgWhy it helps:

  • Allowing the child to make her own choices gives her a sense of some healthy control, which lessens her need to demand it elsewhere
  • Validates the child’s desires, which increases cooperation
  • Improves decision-making skills (once choice is made, child can not change their mind)

playthertech5.jpgWhy it helps:

  • Receiving such focused attention from an adult decreases child’s need to seek it in unhelpful ways outside the playroom
  • Builds rapport between the therapist and child, which increases the child’s comfort in expressing difficult feelings or ideas
  • Connection and attention feels good for the child, and children who feel better behave better

playthertech6.jpgWhy it helps:

  • Being gentle and understanding increases cooperation in the moment
  • Being firm about the separation does not give in to the child’s anxiety, which only increases the problem in the future (when the child is able to successfully separate, it increases their comfort & confidence with it)
  • Being offered a choice distracts child from what they can’t have and focuses on what they can have (reduces power struggle)
  • Putting a name to the child’s feeling helps her identify it herself in the future

playthertech7.jpgWhy it helps:

  • Shows understanding, which increases comfort and lessens shame
  • Therapist’s calm and non-judgmental presence calms child quicker (helps him learn to regulate himself)
  • Naming feeling increases child’s ability to do it for himself in the future


Play therapy is a complex process, and it can be difficult to describe how and why it works in such direct terms. However, I hope that by outlining some common techniques, your understanding of this process (and of what the therapist is actually DOING) has been enhanced.

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