Does Play Therapy Help with Trauma?
By Amanda Robinson
Licensed Professional Counsellor and Registered Play Therapist
Instagram Handle: @amandarobinson_lpc_rpt
Does play therapy help children heal from trauma? In a word, yes.
Following a traumatic event like abuse, accidents, or natural disasters, children’s minds and bodies can be impacted in varying ways. Some children may exhibit hypervigilance and have nightmares, others may withdraw and seem inattentive, and almost all will demonstrate anxiety to some degree. Additionally, they may show new and challenging behaviours that parents and teachers find upsetting and difficult to manage.
During a trauma, the verbal part of a child’s brain shuts down. The experience is stored not with other memories, but in the sensory networks of the brain and body. Because of this, words to describe the traumatic situation are inaccessible. This is why, when adults ask children to verbally relay what happened, children are frequently unable to provide much, especially if they are very young.
Fortunately, play therapy is an experiential approach that allows memories to be explored non-verbally. This modality, which is conducted by licensed mental health professionals, allows children the opportunity to “play out” their struggles by using toys to symbolically represent their feelings and needs. By projecting their experiences onto the toys, psychological distance is created, and ensures both greater safety and self-understanding for children. By not relying on language, play therapy is a more developmentally-appropriate and trauma-sensitive approach for kids.
The benefits of play therapy do not end there. Play therapists are mindful about creating an environment that is consistent and predictable; for kids, predictability lends to safety. Play therapists are devoted to entering a child’s world and communicating with them on their level. They accept children wholly and without judgment, helping children feel safe to explore material that otherwise feels vulnerable and potentially shameful to them. It is through this atmosphere of warmth, safety, and acceptance, that children can bond with play therapists and gradually remember that adults can be trustworthy and protective. This recognition is paramount for a child’s healing from trauma.
In addition, non-directive play therapy clients are given the chance to lead therapy at their own pace. They get to decide what to play with, and how to play with it, without the therapist attempting to lead or control the activity. In this method, children are shown a great deal of respect and patience to process things on their own. If they encounter challenges, they are given the space and encouragement to come up with their own solutions. This experience is incredibly empowering for kids who through trauma have been made to feel powerless and exposed. The opportunity to exercise control over something increases their ability to cope with their problems.
Working with parents is another vital aspect of helping children through trauma. Parents are on the front lines of this work, and how they respond has a huge impact. Play therapists respect the significant role that parents play in healing, and they engage parents at every step of treatment by teaching them effective skills for responding to difficult behaviors at home. Parents are also educated on the how and why of trauma’s effects on the brain in an effort to increase their understanding and empathy for what their children are experiencing.
So yes, play therapy helps with trauma in a multitude of ways! Through repetition, the traumatic memory gradually becomes less overwhelming for children. Treatment takes a different amount of time for different kids, and it is not possible to predict exactly how many play therapy sessions a client will need; however, most children show some improvement and feel better within a relatively brief amount of time.
Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship (3rd ed). Routledge.
Ray, D. (2020). Why play therapy is appropriate for children with symptoms of PTSD:
6 reasons why play therapy is an effective treatment choice for children with
trauma. Play Therapy, June 2020, p 4-7.