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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days 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.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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