As parents there are few things in this world that we value as much as our children. From generation to generation, the world over, we hear stories of sacrifice and hardship endured by a mother or a father for the good of their child. In fact, protecting our children is so important to us that there is nothing that we wouldn’t do to keep a child safe. We would gladly face down a wild animal, run into a burning building, or confront an intruder in our homes if we felt our child’s safety were at stake. If there is one thing that all people from all races and religions the world over seem to have in common, it is a shared willingness to pay any price to keep our children out of harm’s way.

Thankfully the majority of children are lucky enough to enjoy a life with little or no significant trauma or upset. However, despite the best efforts of their parents there are some difficulties or challenges that some children will have to face. Sometimes a parent or a sibling will die. Sometimes people can become gravely ill, or have a serious accident. Sometimes a significant adult in a child’s life will be struggling with addiction or prone to violent outbursts. Sometimes children can be bullied, or made to feel inferior or ‘less than’ and their self esteem can be damaged. Other times a child might be witness to the bulling and abuse of a person the care about and depend upon.

Fortunately, in the majority of cases parents will be able to provide enough support and understanding to help their child without professional assistance, however in some particularly difficult circumstances, or simply because of the complexity of an issue, parents may struggle to help their child cope. When things do become difficult there are usually two main obstacles for a parent trying to understand and help their child.

The first issue is that children see the world in a very different way to adults. Depending on the child’s developmental stage there are many common beliefs and understandings that children tend to hold that adults would be quite surprised to realise. One very common belief that young children all seem to hold is the idea that everything that happens in their lives happens because of them. This can be fine if it is a positive belief such as ‘the sun is shining because it is my birthday’ but it can be very destructive if it were the belief that ‘Nana died because I was fighting with my sister’.

Another thing that parents rarely realise is that young children are simply unable to imagine how another person might see a situation. They are, in essence, unable to see through another’s eyes so, for example, if they wouldn’t steal a sweet they are unable to understand why other people might. For this reason many parents would have great difficulty explaining to a young child the abstract idea that a person who stole bread to feed their hungry family was anything other than ‘a bad person’. Children cannot perform the abstract thinking required to see how this could be anything other than ‘the wrong thing to do’. Many adults don’t realise this and so they can fall into the trap of assuming that the child understands far more than the child realistically can be expected to understand.

An example where this might become troublesome for a family might be where a father is forced to leave the country to find work elsewhere. Unable to see through their parents eyes, the child might reason that they would never move away from their family, so Daddy shouldn’t do so either. The young child, unable to comprehend the adult world of high unemployment, mortgage repayments, emigration etc. might simply conclude that Daddy left because he didn’t love them anymore. Meanwhile an adult might assume that the child understands why their father spends three weeks per month outside the country, unaware that the child may have formed their own conclusion with very distressing results.

A second issue that can cause difficulty in the communication between a child and an adult is that children tend not to use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Parents, quite understandably, assume that because their child can ask for juice and talk about their day in school that this means their child can also talk about their thoughts and feelings. However, children think in concrete terms. This means that they can talk about real things that they see in their everyday lives. So they can easily talk about the cat on the mat, or their favourite T.V. show, or the game they played in the school yard. But children rarely use words to communicate such abstract things as feeling, or hopes, or fears. When children do communicate these more abstract emotions and understandings they don’t use words, they use play.

A Play Therapist is trained to communicate with the child through play. In the opening play therapy sessions the therapist first lets the child lead the way, choosing what toys to play with and what games to play. As the weeks pass the child becomes more and more comfortable in the play room and with the therapist, and we notice that they will begin to introduce what is called ‘personally relevant play’. Through this play the child gives the play therapist an insight into their inner world, and in so doing can help the therapist recognise how the child understands that world. As the sessions pass the play therapist can watch for recurring themes in the play that can provide a deeper and richer understanding of the child’s reality. In this way the therapist can then provide the parents with a more accurate picture of what might be upsetting their child.

Eventually, the Play Therapist can begin to move from a non-directive approach, where they allow the child complete freedom to control the play, to a more directive stance where they might provide suggestions (or demonstrate through example) for a more healthy resolution to an issue that has been causing difficulty in the play. Bearing in mind that the play is representative of the child’s life, we can see that in this way the Play Therapist can inform and assist the child in resolving (or at the very least, coping with) the issues that are troubling them.