Working in counseling sessions

(Blitstein, 1982, p. 192). Similar to adults using words to communicate, play is the language that children use to express what they are thinking and feeling. As challenging as it might seem to orchestrate family counseling sessions with parents and children together, children are interested in being involved in the process and can contribute in meaningful ways (Gil & Sobol, 2005).


Working in counseling sessions with parents and young children together involves a different skill set as compared to working with adults solely or children solely. Counselors should be knowledgeable of and have access to supplies which support a variety of play-based activities. Various kinds of play and techniques may engage the family in meaningful dialog and problem solving. The use of puppets, dolls, expressive arts, sand tray, and role play are just a few play-based strategies that may benefit the family. Puppets and dolls can be used with most family members of various ages (approximately 4 years old to adult) to illustrate a family member’s subjective “reality” or fantasy. A family can be asked to demonstrate a particular time of day with dolls or puppets (e.g., after school, dinner time, bed time, Saturday morning). Each family member will use his or her doll to “act out” what they do during these time frames. To enhance perspective taking, the family members may want to switch roles (e.g., mom switches to the doll used by her six-year-old daughter and “becomes” the daughter for the re-enactment) and then discuss the outcome (i.e., thoughts and feelings related to how one was “portrayed”). Dolls and puppets can also be used to illustrate a fantasy regarding how a family would like a particular time of day to play out, how they would like to communicate with one another, how they would like to solve problems, and so on. Expressive arts (e.g., markers, paint, chalk, crayons) can be used to create pictures which help to illustrate individual family member perspectives. For example, each family member can be given a large piece of butcher block paper and asked to draw three pictures in three columns: (1) a happy family memory, (2) a sad family memory, and (3) an angry family memory. Each family member can then explain their illustrated memories and discuss them with the family. Family members four and older should be able to participate in this activity and derive benefit from listening to the varied perspectives. Additionally, several other drawing/creating prompts can be useful to use, such as “draw a family secret,” “draw a family problem,” “draw a picture of the family solving a problem,” “draw a picture of family members being kind or respectful,” and so on. Like expressive arts therapy, sand tray play can serve as a therapeutic medium for family members. By manipulating toys in a large sand tray, family members can tell stories, gain mastery over a crisis or trauma, role

Play-Based Activities in Family Counseling 345

play communication, and problem-solving strategies, experiment with fantasy family situations or scenarios. Family members can take turns in the sand tray while other family members watch, groups of family members can participate together (e.g., children, parents) or if the sand tray is large enough, family members can engage in structured scenarios simultaneously (e.g., show each other what you did while you tried to understand and deal with grandpa’s death). The activities described above suggest that counselors who engage in play-based family therapy use a varied counseling skill set which allows them to manage interpersonal complexity across different developmental levels. When initiating play-based family therapy, counselors should gather information from all family members in the initial counseling sessions to assist them in effectively implementing a treatment strategy tailored to the needs of both parents and children. It is important, at some point during the initial counseling sessions, to discuss therapeutic and developmentallybased benefits of play. Counselors should discuss, with family members, in a developmentally tailored way, the benefits of play including the biological, cognitive and social-emotional components (Wehrman, 2008).

Parent Resistance Parent resistance to play is a common challenge. There are a number of reasons that parents may resist and it is important to note that it should be seen as a normal part of the process. Some of the reasons cited by VanFleet (2000), founder and director of the Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center, include: parents may be unsure of the value of the counseling and may be uncomfortable with play as part of the process, they may feel uncomfortable with the counselor, or they may be wary of the process if the services are mandated vs. voluntary. Parents may view ‘talking’ about family problems as the key to making changes and play-based activities as detracting from the real work that they think needs to be completed. Parents may ask such questions as, “How can just playing help me or my child?” In response, the counselor should provide explanations that help to co-construct a different way of viewing play with the parents. It must be noted that some parents may feel very uncomfortable with participating in play themselves because they lack self-esteem, self-efficacy or the sense of psychological freedom that permits spontaneous creatively. Parents who are themselves emotionally vulnerable may feel overwhelmed by the expectation to “go off script” with how they normally interact with adults and their children. Given these challenges, it is important for the counselor to fully explain the purpose and importance of using play-based activities in the sessions and model how an adult can play or engage in experiential activities. Taking risks during counseling should be encouraged, acknowledged and reinforced. Self-consciousness

346 J. D. Wehrman and J. E. Field

on the part of the counselor can certainly reinforce the trepidation felt by parents.

Counselor Resistance Counselors may find themselves feeling resistant to using play-based activities in the family counseling process. Often working with young children can feel unpredictable and overwhelming as counselors do not “control” spontaneous play. Further, it can be challenging to connect with children in the presence of their parents if counselors feel inhibited or embarrassed. New counselors especially may feel competing urges to appear competent or as an “expert” and engage in creative activities that will engage the family. Studies have found that a main variable for counselors regarding whether or not to include children in family counseling sessions is their own comfort level (Johnson & Thomas, 1999). A counselor’s work environment, including space, furniture and safety concerns can also be a factor (Millier & McLeod, 2001). Additionally, it may be challenging for counselors to obtain basic supplies needed for the inclusion of play-based activities into family sessions. While counselors may face these external dilemmas (i.e., space and supplies), family counselors who are comfortable will play and believe in its therapeutic benefits, often find creative ways to use experiential play-based activities.

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