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5 Secrets of Play Therapists That Every Parent Should Know

... And practical tips for putting those secrets into action.

Key points

  • Play therapy can be a useful intervention for families facing many different types of struggles.
  • But every family can benefit from understanding and putting into practice the key principles of play therapy.
  • Play doesn't put the parent in the role of therapist—it just makes their role of parent more powerful.

When I first studied play therapy, my professors didn’t talk about the parent-child relationship—except maybe to blame parents for children’s problems. Instead, the focus was on the therapist-child relationship. The therapist did their magic in the privacy of their office, with the parents safely away in the waiting room.

I couldn’t put my finger on what troubled me about this approach until I became a parent. I discovered—what a surprise!—that parenting is hard, even with a lot of resources and a background in psychology. I needed help as a new dad to find my own way to closeness and connection. So at work, I shifted my play therapy practice away from one-on-one sessions. Instead, I got on the floor with families and coached them on playful family connection and playful family problem-solving.

I also remembered some of the core principles I had learned about play therapy. Parents are not and should not be therapists for their children. However, play therapy is rooted in principles and attitudes that can be very useful for any parent:

1. Play is the language of childhood.

Play therapists join children in their world—they get on the floor and play. With older children, they participate in the child’s favorite activities, such as basketball, music, or a video game. They let children take the lead.

Parents can learn from this focus on joining children in play because we often want to talk about the issues with our kids (and talk and talk). We get frustrated when they aren’t interested in talking—or listening.

Play is a better way to go. Play engages all aspects of the child—physicality and movement, the senses, imagination, emotions, language, thought, and social connection. Play is how children learn best, and play activates the natural healing process.

Mickail Nilov/Pexels
Mickail Nilov/Pexels

2. There aren’t good and bad emotions.

Like many play therapists, I studied adult therapy first. I saw that the suppression of emotions in childhood often has negative effects in adulthood. That helped me recognize the importance of welcoming all feelings that children express.

Unfortunately, many parents spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to stop or change their children’s emotions. It may take the form of “Stop crying, or I’ll whack you,” or “Please don’t cry; I’ll give you a cookie,” but either way, emotions are pushed down. A key lesson parents can learn from play therapists is that every emotion is an important piece of communication, and all we need to do is listen. Emotions that are witnessed and validated flow naturally to completion.

3. There aren’t good and bad kids (or parents).

It is easy for families to get wrapped up in a problem or a troubled child. It defines the family. One secret of play therapy is that no matter how big or long-lasting the problem is, it is never the whole story.

There are always strengths, successes, and growth, even in the midst of a family trainwreck.

All parents and all children deserve compassion. Play therapists—good ones, anyway—respect parents and don’t see parents as failures even if the child misbehaves or the parent struggles. Good play therapists see the whole child, not just a diagnosis or a problem.

4. Observation is powerful.

Another secret of play therapy is that careful observation is not just valuable for making an assessment. Careful observation is healing. When someone witnesses a child’s feelings and needs, the child feels seen and known. This is therapeutic as long as it is done without judgment or criticism.

As parents, we can also observe ourselves. We can ask ourselves the questions that play therapists often ask parents: What was your life like when you were the age your child is now? What are your memories of school? How did your parents express anger and other emotions? What childhood memories and emotions are triggered by family conflicts or problems at home?

5. The word “misbehavior” is not useful.

Play therapists don’t think in terms of “misbehavior.” Instead, we look underneath a child’s behavior for the feelings, needs, and wishes that drive it. If you, as a parent, only respond to behavior, you will miss the most important aspect of the problem. If you deal with the underlying issues by validating the child’s emotions or meeting their needs, then the problem behavior often resolves on its own.

Another reason not to label “misbehavior” is that it makes punishment seem logical. (It’s not.) If we see problems the way play therapists do—as emotional overload and unmet needs—then we will respond with empathy and connection, not punishment, consequences, or control.

Tips for putting these principles into practice:

  • Make time for play. Lots of time!
  • The quality of playtime is also important. Many parents misunderstand quality time to mean some special activity with prime photo ops. But quality time refers to the quality of attention the parent pays to the child. Be present. Be enthusiastic. Put down your phone. You aren’t playing a boring game because you like the game; you’re playing it because you like your child.
  • Try 10 minutes of pillow fighting or play wrestling before bedtime or before homework (and maybe another 10 as a frustration break during homework and as a tension reducer after homework)
  • Let children take a more powerful role in play. Play is a great place for children to experience power in their lives. They can make things happen, make decisions, and be in control.
  • Adults tell children what to do—and what not to do—even during play. Instead, follow children’s lead. They are the play experts; let them be the director and star. Be willing to play a supportive role. Don’t teach a lesson or a skill every time you play.
  • Create a play-friendly environment with mats and pillows instead of glass tables and priceless antiques.
  • Be silly. Use funny voices and make funny faces. Fall over. Lose your dignity to find your child.
More from Lawrence J. Cohen Ph.D.
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