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In the following excerpts from transcripts, therapists are referred to as T. Numbers after the children’s names are their age at interview. The interviewer (myself) is I.
Introduction to play therapy
One child supplied additional information beyond that provided by her therapist: she was referred following the death of her grandmother; a subsequent disclosure of sexual abuse became the focus of therapy. However, she told me:
I actually know that it was because I’d stopped eating, cos my nan died and I used to eat her meals – her meals on wheels – and that’s why I thought she died, so I stopped eating.
Five children could not recall their expectations preceding therapy. The predominant concern of other children was that it would be boring, or they would be expected to talk:
I thought it was going to be a little room with either a really old man or a really old woman, that asked you questions that you really, really didn’t want to answer, and you did a bit of coloring and drawing and that was it. (Allan, 14)
Many therapists recounted comprehensive introductions which explained the purpose of therapy, and described the playroom. I asked the children what they would tell their peers if one expressed anxiety prior to attending for play therapy themselves. Children’s responses contrasted with the lengthy accounts given by therapists; their basic message was that it was fun, and it helped:
L: I’d say to the person, you’re going to play therapy, take it from me, if you don’t like fun, don’t bother going.
Children were aware of efforts made by carers in taking them to therapy; one understood the need for a change of venue as it simplified traveling for her mother. Another valued time spent with her mother on the bus journey. Attendance for children seen in school or residential units posed no such
External supports for the children were valued by therapists; secure placements, with loving carers able to contain children when they had difficult feelings, were seen as essential. It was also clear that support given to carers was understood and appreciated by the children. One child was particularly positive about attention given to her family on arrival:
K-A: When she come to get me, in reception, she didn’t just come and get me straight away. She always stopped and asked how Mum was and things, and like played with these two [indicating her sisters] for a bit.
Therapists appear to have succeeded in keeping their concerns about external difficulties, such as uncertainty over funding or future plans, away from the work with the children, as they made no mention of it.
Relationship between child and therapist
Therapist behaviour which facilitated the relationship
Two children valued the provision of a box or folder, containing private materials. They were able to describe, in great detail, the contents of their box, reflecting its importance. One child mentioned being given a present:
B: There was a book called the ‘Big Bag of Worries’ and she gave me that one, and in the book she asked all her parents, and then she asked her grandma and her grandma said ‘Let all your worries out’ and they were little, and they were chucking them out.
The therapist hoped the book would help Britney share her worries, but this was overshadowed by her delight at receiving a present. All the children were appreciative of toys and materials provided for them, irrespective of whether they worked in a fully equipped playroom or in borrowed rooms with portable materials. Seven children identified confidentiality as a vital component of the therapeutic relationship, and a further indication of the therapist’s willingness to help.
One day there was this teacher in year three that I really didn’t like, and I bottled it up for about a year, until I was talking to T. I could like say ‘I don’t like so-and-so teacher’. Cos it was sort of like she wouldn’t say anything. She’d never say anything to anyone else that I, like I said I didn’t like so-and-so teacher, and she wouldn’t go and tell that teacher. (Lewis)
Susie (14) went a step further; she knew that her mother would be upset if Susie talked about her sexual abuse at home, but that the therapist could contain her feelings safely and confidentially. However, children recognized that therapists talk with other adults, and two understood that therapists had a vital role as advocate on their behalf. Jamie and his sister had moved several times before beginning therapy:
I: Before you started play therapy, do you remember what you thought would happen?
A child referred with separation anxiety acknowledged the pivotal role of the therapeutic relationship in his developing ability to separate from his mother:
S: It [play therapy] helped me understand things more better. Like, if my Mum went off, that she would come back; cos she usually went to these meetings, and it used to be that she didn’t come back till nine or ten.
Words children use to describe their therapist
She’s nice. She’s really kind and everything, and she don’t really get annoyed.Well, she didn’t get knotted, she was really relaxed sort of thing. (Legoman, 12)
Three children liked being teased by the therapist:
She’d say how pretty I looked in my school uniform, how cheerful I was; I lost one of my teeth once and she said, she kept saying ‘Have you been kissing a lot of boys lately?’ and I went ‘No’. (Christina, 11)
Four children extended descriptions of the therapist and thought of them as helpful and understanding. Stephanie highlighted the therapist’s ability to
S: She’s quite good at predicting things, like when I went out she said ‘I think you feel very happy’ and I went ‘Yes, you’re
However, although the children were quick to describe their therapists as ‘kind’ and ‘helpful’ they found it more difficult to isolate qualities to illustrate that helpfulness.Two children talked of the therapists being easy to talk to, and another of a willingness to
Children’s awareness of appearance
L: She always wears lipstick, sort of reddy-orange. She usually wears trousers. She usually wears [whispers] old stuff.
Tiffany recalled her therapist appearing one day in a ‘posh suit’, in contrast to her customary informality. This event had occurred six years prior to our discussion (she attended therapy for several years).
Play Therapy and the Therapeutic Use of Story
- Carlson, Roxanne, Play Therapy and the Therapeutic Use of Story, Canadian Journal of Counselling / Revoie canadienne de counseling /, Vol. 33:3, 1999.
Reflection Exercise #4
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