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Play Therapy for ADHD

Therapy for Children vs Adults

Childen and adults process events and experience emotions differently. Adults who go through traumatic events or struggle with mental health disorders would benefit from therapy sessions such as CBT or psychodynamic therapy.

Sitting in a chair and having a whole forty-five minutes to delve into your innermost thoughts and worries can be a treat for some people while extremely difficult and uncomfortable for others. Children with mental health disorders, especially children with ADHD, may require a unique kind of therapy: play therapy.

Instead of sitting in a char, where the urge to fidget and dance around the room remains a challenge, in play therapy, the room is the child’s canvas. Most play therapists have a room filled with different action figures, dolls, art projects, cars, dress-up, and putty. In this room, the child is free to play, make believe and set the rules.

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Goals of Play Therapy

Play therapy provides a safe outlet for a child to process negative emotions such as anger, shame, and guilt. Many times, children are unaware of the anger they feel and do not have the language to express certain concerns. In a play session, the therapist works with the child to recognize feelings of anger, stress or conflict. The goal is to have the child be aware of the negative emotion so anger or guilt does not control the child.

Through play, such as playing with toy hammers or putty, a child can act out this anger and express it in a constructive space rather than at school and at home. For children with ADHD especially, a big goal of therapy is to help reduce distractions so these children can better focus and concentrate,

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Therapist and Child relationship

For effective therapy, a clinician needs to focus on gaining a child’s trust and learning who this child is. The therapist wants the child to leave play therapy feeling confident and understood.

The playroom can help a child build up his or her confidence as the child leads the sessions at first. Often times the therapist will validate a decision a child made when playing with toys or make-believe games.  Some therapists use tracking where they describe out loud each action and decision the child makes during play. This helps the child feel validated and understand that he or she is capable of making decisions.

People with ADHD struggle with decision making as it can be hard to focus on all aspects of a decision (when distracters are always present). Leaving each session with the feeling that he or she solved the problem or structured a game, can build up a child’s feeling of self-worth and confidence.

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Play Therapy in Action

Play therapy should be a fun and positive experience for a child. The playroom is a room of possibility and discovery. At first, play time is open-ended with the child freely choosing toys and art and building a relationship with a therapist.

As the therapist learns the child’s personality and background better, the therapist can slowly start directing the session.  For example, if a child’s parents are fighting a lot at home, a therapist may opt to act this out with puppets.

These acts of symbolic play can help a child reduce conflict in his or her daily life or learn to cope with a traumatic experience. During play therapy, toys and games become tools which allow a child to express subconscious feelings and manage intense emotions. 

Play Therapy in the Home

Play therapy can also be transferred to the home and school environment. Some therapists, in the sessions, help the child practice deep breathing and mindfulness techniques.

Therapists also model appropriate ways to play with toys which the child can incorporate when playing with peers and siblings.  It is important for the parents to communicate with the clinician to help make play therapy an active and enriching part of a child’s life.

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