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Helping Children Heal through Play Therapy

Children experiencing emotional distress often do not have the ability to verbally express their emotions, but play therapy is a powerful way for children to find healing. I'm sure we’ve all witnessed a preschooler throwing a temper tantrum. It may be easy to dismiss the child as spoiled, but more than likely they are experiencing several strong emotions at once and do not have the capacity to process or express those emotions in a regulated way.

One of my favorite children’s book authors Mo Willems portrays this very thing in the beloved book Knuffle Bunny. Dad and young Trixie are walking home from the laundromat when Trixie realizes she’s left behind her highly valued stuffed animal, but she’s so distraught she does not have the words to tell Dad. She tries, but he misunderstands her. So, Trixie has no other choice but to pull out all the stops to express her panic. She screams and cries; she flails her arms, trying to get her dad to understand. When he doesn’t understand, she goes "boneless," collapsing in defeat. This is a humorous, yet very accurate description of how children can feel and behave when flooded with emotions and their safe adults do not understand them.

The Language of Play.

Sadly, many children have problems that are much bigger than a lost stuffed animal. Young children can experience the loss of a parent through divorce, death, or abandonment. Some children are subject to emotional or physical abuse. In these cases, the emotions are much too complicated to handle for a young person. In play therapy, “toys are used like words by children, and play is their language,” according to Garry Landreth, a leading expert in the field. Licensed therapists can help children identify and resolve their problems through the power of play, which is a child’s natural language.

Feeling in Control.

One technique that is often used in play therapy is the sand tray, which a child can use to create scenes that help them work through emotions or difficult situations. Other tools you’ll find in the playroom include play dough and art supplies. Often what they draw or make -- and how they go about it – displays useful information about their emotions and how they identify themselves with the rest of the world. During play therapy sessions, children have control over their environment and often play out disturbing feelings or experiences concretely or symbolically. Play brings out what is hidden inside them and allows them to gain mastery over a challenging situation. Counselors can help reflect and name a child’s feelings, validating their experiences and help children make sense of their feelings and circumstances. While play therapy is most effective for children ages 3-12, teens and even adults can benefit from play therapy techniques, as well.

So, the next time you see a child misbehaving, ask yourself what emotions or experiences the child may be going through. Maybe a little understanding is all they need. If you think a child is suffering from more serious issues, play therapy can help.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us at KS Services, LLC for a free 15-minute consultation at

Licensed Resident in Counseling


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