Play therapy is an effective way to help children facing difficult situations, Garry Landreth has found in nearly 40 research studies involving about 1,200 parents, and he developed a child-parent relationship training model so that parents can use play therapy at home to help their children.
“My goal throughout my professional career is based on the premise that as play therapists we should be sharing our skills,” Landreth said. “We should not be hiding them away behind the closed doors of the play room. If we can be helpful to children, parents can learn to give the same kind of help in the same sessions at home.”
Landreth is an internationally recognized play therapist, author and presenter. He is a Regents Professor Emeritus and founder of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas. His more than 150 journal articles, books and videos include the 2014 DVD CPRT in Action: Four Couples in a CPRT Group and the third edition of his award-winning book Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship.
He presented a workshop Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13 in Fayetteville. It was the first workshop organized by the new Office of Play Therapy Research and Training in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. Students and professional mental health practitioners earned 12 continuing education units toward becoming a Registered Play Therapist or Certified Child-Parent Relationship Therapy Trainer.
Attendance was 109 people with 68 professionals and 41 university students.
Play therapy is a developmentally appropriate therapeutic approach for children ages 2 to 10, Landreth said. In play therapy, toys are like the child’s words and play is their language. The play therapist builds a relationship with the child in which he or she feels safe and comfortable and will play out problems in the say way that adults or adolescents will talk about their problems in the counseling relationship, he explained.
“Until about 10 or 11 years of age, a child is not able to think in a reasoned and abstract ways,” Landreth said. “A lot of language we use is very abstract. Nor are children able to fully and adequately express themselves in language. The natural language of children is play.”
During the process, the child will naturally move toward playing out what is significant in his or her life, traumatic things that have happened, abuse, neglect, grief, whatever it might be, he said.
“If the child feels safe, they will unconsciously – in their play – project that which is troubling them,” Landreth said. “We trust the child to take the therapist to where the child needs to be, which may be a different place than for what the child was referred. Many times, we have had children play out meaningful happenings in their lives that no one seemed to know about. Parents may feel concern that something is wrong but they may not know what it is.”
Most adults focus on observable behaviors, he said. Adults want these behaviors to change because they are irksome behaviors.
“Yet, if we focus on the observable behaviors, then we will miss out on understanding what perhaps is significant to the child,” Landreth said. “In the child-centered play therapy approach, it is the relationship that is the therapy, not something we apply to the child, not some technique we apply or some game we ask them to play hoping they reveal something.”
As the child plays out problems, much like what occurs with adult when they talk out problems, it’s like setting a burden aside, he said, allowing the child to focus on more positive behaviors.
Play therapy gives the child the feeling of being in charge, which is healing, Landreth said, making the child feel more comfortable and responsible for his or her behavior.
“One of our primary objectives is to return responsibility to the child, to empower the child,” he said.
CHILD-PARENT RELATIONSHIP TRAINING
Landreth said his model of child-parent relationship training grew out of play therapy. It’s a 10-week system in which parents learn skills to use in play therapy.
“Parents can learn these skills quite quickly,” he said. “In 10 sessions, they become the therapeutic agent to their child. In many cases, we never see the child other than to supervise the parent.”
In the first three weekly sessions, parents are taught the skills necessary to conduct play therapy sessions at home – with one child for 30 minutes each week. They videotape the sessions and, during the following seven weeks, the trainers and other parents in the group, usually six to eight parents, view the sessions to be sure they have learned the skills and are applying them correctly.
Landreth believes children face more stress now than they did 30 years ago, primarily because of the busy lifestyle of families.
“Children are involved in a lot more activities that keep the parents on the road and take away from family time,” he said. “Many parents say don’t have 30 minutes a week for play training, but they must commit to make a place for 30 minutes of special play time every week.”
Parents are taught to listen to their children, to focus on their children, and to respond in ways that let the child know he or she has been understood.
“We teach the parents four concepts: ‘I’m here,’ not thinking about other things the parent needs to do; ‘I hear you,’ they can reflect back to the child whatever the child has said to them; ‘I understand,’ the experience of being understood is therapeutic; and ‘I care,’ which comes automatically if the parent delivers the first three messages effectively,” Landreth said. “Every child needs to experience those messages in their life. Such messages confirm the child’s existence as well as empowers the child because we do not do things for the child. The objective is to return responsibility to the child in the process of struggling to figure out how things fit together. The child is learning that they are capable of this.”
His research with parents over the years supports Landreth’s belief that parents can learn these skills quickly and deliver them appropriately in special play times. Raters view the videotapes to rate the parents on whether they have learned the skills taught in the program. Data collected show children’s self-esteem improves and their behavior improves.
His research includes parents who were mandated by a court to take part, as well as parents from diverse ethnic groups both in the United States and in other countries. He also found similar positive results with incarcerated parents, both men and women.
“A very insignificant number of parents fail,” Landreth said. “Even the most resistant of parents will buy into the approach. We only ask them to do something for 30 minutes once a week, which makes this the only parent training program that is structured for success. Others require the parent, after training, to deliver the skills 24 hours a day seven days a week and that’s built-in failure. No parent can be perfect for that time.”
He has trained teachers to have special play times with children in their classrooms identified as those who could benefit from the therapy, and he has trained high school students and fifth-graders to work with at-risk kindergartners with good results, Landreth said.
“It is empowering for parents to know how to help children,” he said. “Parents often feel guilty. They take their child to a therapist; then, the parent sits on the sideline feeling guilty because they feel inadequate. They think there is nothing they can do. In child-parent relationship training, somewhere down the line the objective is always to shift play therapy to the parent.”