FAQ About Child and Play Therapy

Whether you’re considering taking your child to see a therapist for the first time, or they’ve been in for years, it’s natural to have questions about the process. It’s always best to check in with your specific therapist for their thoughts on these questions, but I understand that can feel uncomfortable at times, and I’m happy to provide some information to help dispel any misconceptions.

Below are queries that I frequently receive from the parents on my caseload, followed by my typical responses:

How long does therapy take with kids and teens?

I wish I had an exact answer to this one – I really do! I get that when we go to the doctor for an illness, they’re usually able to prescribe a course of treatment that will last a specific amount of time, and we can expect to feel better once it’s done. It’s understandable that parents want a similar answer about their child’s therapy – especially since it’s expensive!

Unfortunately, treating psychological health is not always as clear-cut as treating the body (which we all know is not always easy either)! The length of time it will take for a child or teen to meet treatment goals and be ready to end therapy massively depends on at least 4 factors:

  • What the presenting issue is. (Things like trauma or grief are going to take longer than milder problems.)
  • How long the concern has been going on. (If a challenge started years ago, it’s going to make more than a handful of sessions to be resolved.)
  • The level of family support. (Involved, loving, supportive parents who are open to making changes will help the process immensely.)
  • The child or teen’s own personality and motivation. (Resistant or highly anxious kids may take longer to warm up to the process.)

How will I know when my child or teen is better?

When your child is in therapy, look to their behavior for signs of improvement. Remember all those concerns you had when you first contacted a therapist? Maybe your 4-year-old was being defiant, or your 13-year-old was having a lot of emotional meltdowns. Whatever it is that has you worried or frustrated – it will go away or be greatly improved when they start feeling better.

However, it’s not always that obvious. When kids or teens have experienced trauma or have struggled for a long period of time, it may take them awhile to show noticeable improvement in their behavior, but that doesn’t mean there’s not progress being made. In that case, you may need to play detective and look at certain factors:

  • Is the behavior or problem occurring less frequently, and/or with less intensity?
  • Is the behavior occurring with more predictability (e.g., there are clear triggers and pattern, as opposed to feeling “out of the blue”)
  • Is the child or teen seeming more relaxed and happy than before (aside from tough behaviors)
  • Are they getting along better with other family members?
  • Are you as the caregiver feeling more equipped to respond to the behavior or problem?

Are kids entitled to confidentiality?

In a word, yes. When I’m asked this question, I encourage the parents to remember what it felt like to be a child or teen. If a kid thinks I’m going to run and tell Mom/Dad everything they say, they will NEVER feel safe to open up. They need some privacy and freedom in order to process whatever’s on their mind.

That said, caregivers are the most vital resources in helping their kids get better, so it’s important that I share pertinent information with them! I’m always willing to discuss what challenges I see the kiddo struggling with, without divulging details that feel personal and vulnerable to the child. This also differs by age – I’ll share more about a 4-year-old than I will a 17-year-old.

And of course, anytime I have concerns about a child’s mental or physical safety, I don’t hesitate to contact the parents immediately.

Should I make my child or teen attend therapy if they don’t want to?

Possibly. You can read my longer answer here.

What exactly IS play therapy?

In-person play therapy is held in a playroom filled with art supplies, dolls, dress-up items, and other carefully-selected toys. Virtual play therapy takes place in the child’s bedroom or other space where they have access to these items. Most of the time, sessions are 45-50 minutes long and will take place weekly.

As a child plays, the play therapist pays very close attention to the child’s actions and feelings and will engage in the play if asked to by the child. Sometimes, a specific game or activity may be used to teach the child a new skill. Play therapists do not question or probe your child for information. The playroom is a free place where the child gets to choose what to play with and whether or not to talk. During this time, all feelings and behaviors are acceptable, except for actions that may hurt the counselor, the child, or property. This freedom is necessary so the child will feel safe and trusting enough to reveal fears, worries, and problems. You can read more about play therapy here.

How does someone become a play therapist?

It’s important to note first that ANY clinician can say that they “use play therapy,” regardless of the amount of training and experience they have. Some professionals have many years of experience under their belts and are truly awesome, but others may have very little, and unfortunately, there’s no way to distinguish between the two before meeting with them and asking the question.

On the other hand, clinicians are NOT allowed to call themselves “a play therapist” unless they’ve earned the certification and title of Registered Play Therapist (RPT). Therefore, if you’re searching for a provider and not sure who to trust, looking for an RPT is a good place to start.

In order to become an RPT, professionals must:

  • Hold a master’s degree in a mental health field (psychology, counseling, etc)
  • Hold a mental health license and be allowed to practice independently
  • Complete 150 hours play therapy instruction from approved institutions
  • Complete 350 hours of play therapy practice
  • Document 35 hours of supervision with an RPT supervisor

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