How Parents Can (and Why They Should) Utilize Principles of Play Therapy in Everyday Life

How Parents Can (and Why They Should) Utilize Principles Play Therapy in Everyday Life (by Meghan Owenz)

The goals of play therapy pretty easily translate into the goals of parenting: to have a good relationship with your child and create a safe environment in which he or she can be themselves. Parents can utilize some of the techniques in a specific play therapy intervention within their own home.

What Is Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)?

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy designed for children. The general goals are pretty simple: help the child to bond to the therapist, enact conflicts in a safe place and heal through the accepting relationship.

Parent-child interaction therapy is a wonderful therapy intervention aimed at helping families when a child has a behavioral health issue, such as Attention-Deficit Disorder or Conduct Disorder. It is designed for children aged 2-7 years. Rather than treat the individual child, this therapy aims to coach the parents to improve their relationship with the child. Research demonstrates that a strong attachment or bond between caregiver and child improves behavioral outcomes and increases compliance.

This form of therapy places the relationship between the caregiver and child as primary. This is an important distinction as often in other forms of therapy, the relationship between the therapist and client is primary. The client is either the child in therapy or the parent, often in parent-education groups. In this therapy, the “client” is the all-important relationship between the parent and their child. Therapists often stay out of the room! They provide coaching to the parent via an earbud while they observe the parent and child through a one-way mirror.

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy has been shown to be very effective in research studies. When used with preschoolers with Conduct Disorder, symptoms abate and their behavior is within normal range in follow-up studies.

How Can it Help Me?

The principles taught in PCIT can help every parent. That’s because it’s based on Baumrind’s theory of parenting styles and attachment theory. It aims to teach Authoritative Parenting, meaning parenting that has a good mix of responsiveness and nurturance, balanced out by clear communication and firm boundaries. Parents who utilize this style have high expectations for their children and provide them with the support and guidance they need to meet those expectations. Children of authoritative parents have been found to be socially and academically skilled. Attachment theory posits that a responsive, attuned caregiver results in a strong attachment between that caregiver and child. The strong attachment makes child compliance an intrinsically motivated behavior. The child naturally desires to please a caregiver who seems to care for and understand him or her.

What Can I Learn From It

PRIDE Parenting Skills

The first phase of PCIT involves helping a parent learn how to follow child-directed play. While this may be a simple skill; it is not necessarily an easy one. Parents are likely to use the parenting scripts their parents used with them. If their parents were not effective or comfortable with child-directed play, it is likely that they as parents are not either. And many adults are not accustomed to giving a child the reigns for anything, including play. However, allowing a child to guide their own play can result in increases in executive functioning and build self-esteem. When a parent is a willing participant in this play, the emotional bond between the parent and child is undeniably strengthened.

To set up a child-directed play session, simply pull out some toys, sit down with your child for 15 minutes and tell them they get to choose what the two of you will do together during this “special play time.” During this child-directed play, parents are taught how to implement the PRIDE parenting skills. Here’s what you need to know about that:

Praise: Praise appropriate behavior from the child. Acknowledge hard work. “Wow, you are working hard to balance those blocks!”

Reflection: Just reflect back what your child says to you. This demonstrates that you have their full attention and is naturally calming. If your child says, “I built a big tower,” you say, “I see you built a big tower.”

Imitation: This allows your child to lead and shows that you can follow and are engaged. If the child says, “I am going to build a big tower,” you say, “I will build a big tower too.” Follow their lead in the play.

Description: Describe what your child is doing. This shows you are paying attention and helps build the connection during play. “I see you are using a pattern of red and blue to build your tower.”

Enthusiasm: Demonstrate interest in playing with your child. “Wow! This is fun!” Show that you enjoy playing with them.

While some of these skills may seem obvious and simplistic, they are designed to keep the parent’s attention on the child. The whole purpose is to allow the child to lead the play and for the parent to demonstrate their interest and attention in their child. Research has demonstrated that relationships become stronger and more connected when parents regularly do just five minutes of special play time using the PRIDE skills.

Avoid Micromanaging and Intrusive Behaviors

Have you ever seen a child burn out from all the commands and redirections they receive in a day? I recently saw this in the library with a caregiver of a child. The child walked into story time and was followed by a slew of commands which didn’t end until they left the library. “Don’t put your jacket there. Hang it up. Sit on a square like the other kids.” (Before the child had even surveyed the room). “Move closer or you won’t be able to hear. Stop fidgeting. Look at the book. Answer her question.” (During the story) “Do you want to glue that nose there? The nose should be under the eyes. You want to make the face look regular. You don’t want to waste the glitter.” (During the craft). It sounds exhausting right? Too many questions, commands and critiques can undermine the bonds in any relationship. During special play time (and as often as possible), try to avoid the following:

Commands: During special play time, the goal is to follow your child. Don’t guide your child with commands, follow their play. The giving of commands is disruptive to the child’s flow. In general, limiting the number of commands you give your child during the day will increase their compliance. Don’t command something unless it is really necessary.

Questioning: Questions often require an answer or are an attempt to redirect play. Allow your child to lead.

Criticism: Allow your child to lead. Don’t criticize the way they are playing or what they are doing. You can actively ignore behaviors you don’t like during this time period (i.e., whining).

Increase Compliance

It’s intentional that the child-directed play and skills come first. This follows the “connect before you correct” rule. It’s important that your child feel connected to you before you attempt to take charge. After the connection is well-established, a parent can begin to learn how to lead effectively, which in PCIT includes the use of effective communication and consistent consequences. Effective communication means providing a child with a clear, simple, developmentally appropriate instruction when necessary. The consequences used in PCIT are a timeout. My preference is for naturalistic consequences and the use of timeout only when absolutely necessary.

Try it Out

Start your day off with 15 minutes of special play time per child. See how it sets the tone for the day, for both you and your child.

I Need More.

If you feel your child has a behavioral health issue, I recommend you seek out a PCIT therapist and not attempt the therapy independently. This article is meant to boil down some of the principles from this therapy that can be helpful to all parents, but not to use to treat any condition.


About the Author: Meghan Owenz

Meghan Owenz

Screen-Free Mom is a psychologist, writer and a university psychology instructor. She has her Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami and Masters in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is happily raising her two kids sans screens. She runs a website: www.screenfreeparenting.com where she writes about tech-wise parenting and provides tons of screen-free activities. She has developed psychologically-based system to help organize the activities young children learn and grow from: the S.P.O.I.L. system (http://www.screenfreeparenting.com/introduction-spoil-system/ ). Before you turn on the screen, she asks, “Have you S.P.O.I.L.-ed your child yet today?

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5 Comments

MHall

Thanks for this article. How would one adapt and engage these principles for a child 7 – 10?

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Margit Hall

Thanks for this article. How would you adapt and engage these principles with a child between 7 -10?

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Martina

Great Techniques!! Spend time with your child to have some fun and do this on daily basis. Every moment spent in the fun will work positively as your child will start loving your company.

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Heather G.

Thank you so much for this article! I’d like to add that it’s a good idea to watch how they play, and what they play with. Autistic children use toys as “voices” to express what they normally cannot. So by understanding and playing along with this metaphor the child is creating with the toys, you can understand how they are feeling, or their wants and desires.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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