The Four Universal Outcomes of Play Therapy

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We all know that therapy is beneficial and that positive change is associated with the process. But what can you count on in terms of areas of growth when a child participates in play therapy? There are four universal outcomes of play therapy, regardless of what the child is dealing with when they begin. In this episode, I unpack each of the four outcomes and help you understand why growth in these areas are so beneficial for kids and their futures.

Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. I get questions all the time from parents who are exploring therapy, who are interested in the play therapy model. And they just are curious how it works, what they can expect, what the benefits are, what the outcomes are universally of play therapy. And so in this video, I wanted to share with you the four major outcomes of play therapy, regardless of why the child is involved in the process in the first place.

So understandably, you might have an adjustment issue with one child where they’re dealing with the birth of a new sibling. Which would be very different than a child who has been through some kind of traumatic experience or some type of abusive situation. Then you have children who are struggling academically, versus children who are struggling socially. So there’s a whole range of reasons why a child begins therapy, but there are four outcomes that are universal because of the play therapy process, regardless of the presenting concerns for a specific child.

So let me break this down for you and help you understand what that would look like. And often these questions come into me from my email newsletter. So that is certainly a way that you can stay in contact with me. You can always email me in response to the newsletters that I send out, and you can find that at thekidcounselor.com/newsletter if you’d like to sign up. That’s one way that I communicate with folks all the time.

So one of the questions I get is: “What do I get if I put my child in therapy?” There are four major outcomes. Let’s look at them one by one. So the first is increased regulation. And that is across all spectra. What I mean by that is there’s lots of different reasons why a child can become dysregulated and you often see evidence of dysregulation in lots of different arenas. So when I say increased regulation, that is psychological, mental, social, academic. There’s all kinds of facets to where everything just kind of levels out. And I typically draw this for parents, but I’ll kind of give you a visual representation here. If you think about a flat line and you think about a zigzag up and down, huge spikes above and below the line, and it’s kind of all over the place. Almost like a heart monitor; maybe an irregular heart monitor. You have these huge swings and ups and downs. That is typically the behavior and the “normal” for a dysregulated child previous to starting the therapy process. Once the therapy process does what it does and they begin to regulate better, they tend to have more of a wave where there are small ups and downs and it’s curved and it kind of stays very close to the midline. So whereas before here’s midline, you have these huge spikes up and down. After therapy, it’s more like a wave where it just kind of stays centered. Why is that? Because the child learns how to self control, how to self regulate, and every child works toward balance. So the huge swings, the huge ups and downs, the huge emotional upheaval; all of that is from a child that cannot control themselves and they are affected by their circumstances. So when a child develops regulation, nothing fazes them like it used to. So the severity is lessened, the frequency is reduced, the the huge spikes are kind of leveled out and you just get a more calm, centered, balanced child. Of course there are still ups and downs but everything just stays more balanced. So increased regulation is outcome number one.

Outcome number two is increased worldview. Now, a lot of times kids until about the age of 12 or 13, they do not develop abstract reasoning skills. So every once in a while you have a child who is a little bit younger or a little bit older that can get there. But it’s usually in that 12 or 13 year old range. So when you’re looking at a child that doesn’t have abstract reasoning, it’s very difficult for them to have appropriate worldview. What I mean by that is they’re here and now, they respond in the moment, governed by their feelings. Whatever the emotion feels, they act. So therefore they’re impulsive, they’re spontaneous, they don’t think through things. They’re not cognitive, they’re not rational. So as a result of therapy, they begin to think through, “Yes, I want to pick this up and throw it across the room because I’m so mad, but it might hurt someone. It might have a consequence I don’t like. It may affect the future. There might be an outcome that I didn’t want.” So they begin to connect that actions have consequences and they learn that what I choose to do in this moment has a ripple effect beyond the here and now. So it’s another area of self regulation. But it’s broadened out to understand that it’s not just all about them in the moment, it’s about other people, and the environment, and the circumstances in the situation. So that’s outcome number two.

Outcome number three is increased emotional vocabulary. So this is a monumental gain for kids because children do not come out of the womb understanding their emotions. It is a learned process. And what you need to know is that children have a two part development of emotional vocabulary. Well humans do, but specifically in terms of play therapy and children, they have to accurately identify their feeling first. And then they effectively communicate the feeling to communicate their needs.

So essentially, if you have someone who is an adult and gets really angry and punches their fist through the wall, they don’t have a healthy emotional vocabulary. Because they either did not understand their feeling, or they did not effectively communicate their feeling. So that is learned, it’s developed. And the play therapy process gives kids the opportunity to learn how to identify what they’re feeling and then express it. And the greater good of that is no one can ever meet your needs unless you’re able to express what those needs are. So when a child says, “When I was in the playroom and I felt this way, Ms. Brenna told me that I was nervous. So now I can accurately identify this feeling as being nervous (part one). (part two) Next time I feel this way when I’m at home, or at school, or on the playground, or wherever I may be, I can say, ‘Oh, I remember what this is’ – now I can tell someone I feel nervous right now.” Then the need can be met. So emotional vocabulary is a huge gain for kids as a really beneficial outcome.

Outcome number four is increased self esteem. As I’ve mentioned in other videos and in my podcasts, play therapy works as one issue sparks work on all of the rest. So self esteem is one of those concepts and outcomes that we watch for that are so beneficial because it really is one of the huge influencers of all of the rest of the progress. Because as a child starts to feel better about themselves, as they learn that they’re capable, that they can trust themselves, that they’re competent, that they have coping skills, that they are resilient, that they can figure out how to handle a situation; you start believing those things about yourself, everything seems easier. Everything doesn’t seem as overwhelming. So you can see how the increased self confidence, and self esteem, and self worth infiltrates every other aspect of the child’s world. So obviously expressing their emotions becomes easier. Understanding worldview becomes easier. Regulating becomes easier – all because they have a different view of what they’re capable of.

And the power of development of self is that they no longer have to believe that they are at the mercy of their circumstances or that they are the victim in whatever situation they find themselves in. What I mean by that is when you don’t have a good sense of who you are, you don’t trust yourself or believe in yourself to handle whatever that is. So you live in a constant state of ‘what if.’ What if that happens? What if that doesn’t go well? What if I get in trouble? What if (fill in the blank)? Whatever the ‘what ifs’ are, it’s a constant state of fear, and worry, and unknown. And that confusion leads to “I don’t know that I can handle this, so I’m constantly in fear of it.”

Conversely when a child starts to say ‘I’m smart, I’m capable, I can do this, I have problem solving skills, I have coping, I have resilience;’ you fill in all of those things. And all of a sudden they’ll say, “Well, I don’t want that to happen, but if it does happen, I’ll be okay. I’ll be able to handle it, I’ll figure it out, I’ll solve the problem.” So it’s a huge shift in philosophy of the world, and kids develop a sense of the world based on what they believe about themselves, about others, about the nature of living. So, all of those experiences come together.

And imagine what it would be like if you knew that six months down the road, your child had developed those four things – they’d better regulate, they’d have a better world view, they’d have better self confidence, and they’d have a better emotional vocabulary. What would that look like in your family? What would that look like for you as a parent? How would your child feel differently? How would your child view the world? Those are incredible gains to a child who is going to grow up and become an adult. And as parents, as adults in our child’s lives, I think our greatest desire for them is to have them turn into happy adults.

And wouldn’t we say that those four foundational principles and levels of growth would set kids up to not only be happy kids, but also happy kids who become happy adults? So one of the many reasons why I love play therapy and love what I do; it is so helpful. It is so effective and it creates these amazing gains and benefits for kids at a level that is easy for them. It’s appropriate for them and it’s just a natural unfolding as they play.

So again, if you’d like more information from me, if you’d like to stay in touch with me, go to thekidcounselor.com/newsletter. You can sign up there. I have lots of great stuff coming for you. I have an In Home Play Therapy program launching soon that you can get into the Early Bird Wait list if you’d like. Lots of great content – I have podcasts and newsletters and videos and blogs. I put a lot of stuff out there so please stay in touch with me. Let me know how I can help. Shoot me questions, emails, comments, whatever you’d like me to know or hear from you. I would love to, and I look forward to talking to you again soon. Bye.

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