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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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