You are sitting in your lawyer's office, talking about your children. Painful memories, hurt and helplessness fill your heart as you describe your life with your children's other parent. There are financial ties, business ties, legal ties between you and this person whom you no longer like or trust. None of these ties are as emotional and personal as your child. In the midst of this upsetting meeting, your lawyer looks at you and says, 'Your children need a therapist. I recommend this one.' You dutifully put that on your list of homework and wonder what this person may do for or to your children. You also wonder if you can afford this process-emotionally and financially.
Play Therapist's Role #1: Boundary Coach
Even before the first session, play therapists help set boundaries. We must have court documents on our client's custody arrangements. We want to contact each parent in the first few weeks of counseling. We desire relationships with each important person in the child's life. In meeting these requirements, we communicate to the parents the need to work together and show possible ways to cooperate without harming each other. We coach you about the boundaries we have in session, about your information privacy, about boundaries your child has to have and those they don't absolutely need.
While you are going through divorce and custody issues, boundaries and trust shift. Relationships change and are reframed as good/bad, safe/unsafe. Ties that have bound people for years are being removed, reconsidered, reframed. Your lawyer can give some boundaries by talking about what is legal, what helps your case, what the strategy is. However, who is an objective person who can say this is safe for your child's emotional life?
Play Therapist's Role #2: Teacher
Play Therapists spend much of their continuing education focusing on children. Most of their practice is children. In order to be a registered play therapist, we must have specialized education and supervision focused on children. We choose to know and understand as much as we can about children. So in our first few sessions, we may teach you a lot about how a child sees the world and the situation they find themselves in. We may talk about why nesting works for most children, but doesn't work for your situation. We may teach you how to calm your child with relaxation techniques, or talk about how to phrase or present new ideas/changes that are occurring. We can help you to express yourself to your child in an honest, healthy, age appropriate way.
We want to teach these same skills to your child's other parent.
Play Therapists also teach children how to understand divorce, express their complicated feelings about divorce, and learn to live with the life they now have. Reading stories that focus on children's feelings about divorce, role playing with parents and children on how to express themselves respectfully and honestly, playing out stories of conflict in the play room and finding a way to resolve it: These are all my favorite part of working in a divorce situation.
Play Therapist's Role #3: Safety Coach
Most of the time when parents come to me during a divorce or custody hearing, this role is the only one they are thinking about. While the entire extended family is under extreme pressure during social studies, legal hearings, changes to lifestyles and schedules, allegations of abuse or neglect, and their relationships are being redefined in mostly negative ways, while everyone is focused on the negative: parents need someone to assure their child's safety. This need is primal and can be overwhelming. It is also intricately woven into each of the stresses that are occurring. Lawyers, judges, friends and family all ask if the kids are ok, are the kids safe with him/her. And you don't know.
Play therapists, by and large, focus on hearing what the child is saying, what they are feeling, and are not forensic. In fact, many refuse to testify in any way. We understand that there are huge repercussions emotionally if a child feels like they told on their parent, or chose one parent over another. But we do get to be the child's voice when there are safety issues. If your child tells you, the parent, about something scary going on in the other home or at school or at the daycare, your hands can easily be tied due to the custody proceedings that are ongoing. However, if they report to their therapist the concern, the therapist can tell the judge or CPS or the other parent. We can be a bridge to help set a boundary: everyone must be safe.
These are only a few of the roles a play therapist can play in the life of a changing family. My hope is that after reading this article, you know our job better and whether we can help you.
Do you have questions or concerns about a child in your life? Call Christy Graham, LPC Supervisor and Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. If I can't help you, I can find someone who can. If you enjoyed this article, consider signing up for my Parent Education Program. You'll get articles sent to you regarding parenting and an extra podcast a month focused just on parenting issues. Being a client is not the only way to learn more about being a parent!