DTS Magazine

3 Lessons Christian Parents Can Learn from Play Therapy

When I graduated from DTS almost a decade ago with a Biblical Counseling degree, I had no intention of working professionally with children. I had deliberately chosen not to focus any of my time and training on the developmental needs of children in a therapeutic setting because I planned to work exclusively with adults. Ironically, I now find myself with an advanced degree in which most of my training was spent learning how to meet the unique developmental and therapeutic needs of children. Further, the vast majority of my private practice clients are under the age of fourteen.

During the beginning stages of my doctoral degree, I decided, somewhat on a whim, to take a play-therapy course. As a result of that course, I discovered a love of working with children and providing play-therapy services to those who are often voiceless and powerless to change their circumstances.

I discovered a love of working with children and providing play-therapy services to those who are often voiceless and powerless to change their circumstances

I also discovered that by counseling children, I might be able to address mental health concerns that could be a hindrance later in life. As I continued my training as a play therapist, I developed a deep passion to train other Christian professionals to meet the unique therapeutic needs of this population. In my dissertation, I examined the prevalence of seminary counseling students who intended to work with children and the amount of specific training in play therapy provided to these students. I found an alarming trend that revealed that most seminary counseling students planned to work therapeutically with children, yet they did not have specific training in the unique skills of child counseling.

This alarming trend of counselors who are not adequately equipped to counsel children from a developmentally appropriate perspective is somewhat disheartening in light of research that suggests that 9–13% of children and adolescents in the United States suffer from emotional disturbances (Child Health Care Relief Act of 2009, 2009).

Lesson #1: Teach Them to Name and Accept Emotions

In addition to my role training future counselors to work with children, I have the unique privilege of teaching parents helpful parenting skills. I have found that some of the most important things I can impart to parents are how to first acknowledge and accept their child’s emotions. Emotions are part of our design, which make us uniquely human. Sometimes emotions can be seen as sinful, wrong, or invalid. However, we see in Scripture the triune God voicing felt emotions (Genesis 6:6; Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 147:11; Matthew 21:12-13).

The issue with emotion is that we need to experience our emotions as acceptable and valid; however, sometimes actions birthed from emotions can be destructive.

we need to experience our emotions as acceptable and valid; however, sometimes actions birthed from emotions can be destructive

The parents’ challenge is to help children experience their emotions, yet manage their behavior in an appropriate manner. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel (2013) calls this practice “name it to tame it.” Research indicates that naming a feeling and allowing the feeling to be felt helps calm the emotion. Naming emotions also builds greater neural integration and emotional regulation in both the parent and the child.

Lesson #2: Let Kids Make Choices

The second thing that I have found most important to impart to parents is to give children the opportunity to learn how to make choices. As Christians, the Lord allows us freedom to make choices. Sometimes we make wise choices and other times we make poor choices. Nevertheless, making wise decisions is an essential aspect of walking in maturity. In play therapy, we use choice-giving with a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is for discipline. By using choice-giving language, a parent can impart to a child that his or her actions have consequences.

The hope is that this type of language would build an internal locus of control in which the child can role-play the consequences of behaviors.  An example of choice-giving for discipline purposes would be “If you choose to hit Mommy, you then choose to not play outside.” For an older child an example might be, “If you choose to lie to me, you choose to lose screen time for the day.”

The other purpose of choice-giving is to help children learn to make decisions on their own. Often times, children and adolescents have had very little opportunity to practice the skill of decision-making. Being able to make wise decisions is like a muscle, and unless it is used often, it will not grow to be strong. Therefore, parents can create opportunities for their children to exercise the muscle of decision-making. In play therapy we say “Big choices for big kids, and little choices for little kids” (Landreth, 2012).  Right now in my family, I have really young children, so their choices consist of things like “Do you choose chicken nuggets or pizza?” or “Do you choose to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?” As a child gets older, the decision-making opportunities increase like “Do you choose to play soccer this year or basketball?” Ultimately, the hope is that kids will grow into adults who can think through the consequences of their choices and make wise decisions.

Lesson #3: Model Repairing Relationships

Finally, and probably the most important thing I can impart to parents is how to apologize to their child and ask for forgiveness. All relationships are characterized by what we call ruptures. Ruptures are little—and sometimes big—instances in which rifts occur within a relationship. Ruptures are a natural part of our world because of sin. We make mistakes, we hurt one another, we cause pain, and on and on.

However, repair is what heals those ruptures and mends the relationship. We see the ultimate demonstration of repair in Christ’s work at the cross (Luke 23:26–43). God forgave the rupture humanity caused by sin, and God calls us to follow His example by practicing forgiveness of others (Matt. 6:14). Repair occurs in parenting when we as parents own our mistakes, apologize, and ask for forgiveness.

Repair occurs in parenting when we as parents own our mistakes, apologize, and ask for forgiveness.

The great thing about most kids is that they are extremely forgiving. What repairing does for children is to help heal the wounds caused by parents and brings greater cognitive, emotional, and psychological health to the child. Also, it models for a child the art of apology. Children who have seen their parents model this skill are far more likely to do the same for their own children when they are parents. In essence, modeling the art of apology can be impactful for generations to come.

Andi Thacker
Dr. Andi Thacker is an assistant professor of biblical counseling at DTS. She is a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist. She is married to Chad and they have 3 kids, Emerson, Will, and Webb.
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