Play therapy? For teenagers? Play therapy is often thought to be an approach only for young children; however, this approach has also been found effective with adolescents, as well as adults. Play therapy utilizes a common language in which most of us have used to learn about ourselves and the world around us — Play! This therapeutic approach has been found effective in building rapport and a healthy therapeutic relationship, as well as in addressing an array of problem behaviors/symptoms, such as oppositional and defiant behaviors, impulse control, trauma, and emotion regulation.
With play therapy, the individual does not necessarily need to use or have the capability for verbal and/or abstract thinking in order communicate their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is the play itself, in whichever form, that provides a natural and fun mode of expression that helps individuals communicate these thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Through the use of toys, games, art, and other enjoyable activities an individual can practice and improve social skills, test and explore different behaviors, develop problem-solving skills, improve cognitive development, process trauma, and develop insight about and resolution of other inner conflicts. These are issues that individuals of any age and/or development can present with, so why not utilize an approach that is effective AND fun for all parties involved!
Benefits of Play Therapy
I recently worked with a 14-year-old girl whose presented with severe depression and anxiety and had a history of self-harm and a suicide attempt. I began with a combination of play therapy and traditional “talk therapy”, and found that she really struggled with the expression and exploration of any thoughts, feelings, emotions, and/or behaviors relating to her depression and anxiety. So, I decided to try a few different play therapy techniques, including sand tray and art activities, both of which proved very effective and insightful. With the sand tray activity, I provided her with an array of figures and objects (i.e. people, animals, symbols, landscapes, buildings, etc) to place in her tray, and provided her with the simple prompt to create her world in the sand tray using any and as many of the figures and objects provided. Once she was done, we processed her tray. In her tray, she identified the numerous individuals that either lived in the home or were constantly around. With several of these figures/individuals, further insight was presented through the types of figures and/or symbols in which she chose to represent them, such as having a devil figurine represent the physically and sexually abusive uncle living in the home; and a female figurine that had closed eyes and was positioned in one of the far corners of the tray represent her mother who always dismissed the client’s claims of abuse and suffering. I also utilized this play method to have her process and identify what her needs and desires for treatment were, specifically by having her illustrate ideal world in the tray. This activity allowed her to visually express how she viewed her present world and her ideal world, which then helped her verbalize certain thoughts, feelings, desires, and events. She was then able to more easily engage in a few verbal methods to further discuss and process things. This case example really helps illustrate how play therapy is effectively utilized with the teenage population, and specifically with a problem presentation that is notably representative of the teenage population in which we treat here at Chrysalis.