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15 Common Themes in Play Therapy

Themes are an incredibly important aspect of child-centered play therapy (CCPT). Themes can:

-Assist the therapist in knowing if the child is progressing in child therapy

-Help the therapist to better understand the child’s world and the saliency of their difficulties

-Give the child therapist insight into what is important in the child’s life

-Provide a way for the child therapist to communicate to parents and other important adult’s in the child’s life

 

Today’s blog will explore some common themes that are found in play therapy. By no means is this an extensive list of themes that emerge, but this can give you a better picture of some of the themes that are frequent flyers in child centered play therapy.

 

1. Anger

Themes of anger emerge in many kinds of play in child therapy. Children will often demonstrate this theme in role plays where that emphasize the dynamics between characters. An example of the theme of anger being in a child’s play is when a character is frustrated by an action from another character.

 

2. Chaos

Many children who are referred to play therapy have been in very inconsistent, chaotic environments. These children are likely feeling overwhelmed and will exhibit that overwhelmedness in the playroom. Children may exhibit this theme by creating a mess in the playroom.

 

3. Confusion

The world is a confusing place to children. Many mixed messages are sent to children, so they will most likely be played out in child therapy as well. An example of this is when a child expresses misunderstanding of an event in their life (i.e. divorce of parents).

 

4. Connection

Children crave attention from adults. This is how they gain significance! Because so many children have an unmet need for attention, you better believe this theme will come up in session. Connection can be seen in child therapy when the child says “Look!” or “Watch this!” within the play therapy session.

 

5. Fear

The world can be a big, scary, frightening place for child, especially for those who have a history of trauma. Fear in the playroom can be represented by the child shrieking and backing away from pretend spiders and snakes.

 

6. Grief and Loss

All humans experience tangible and non-tangible death and non-death losses in their life. Children share grief and loss themes around losses such as losing a tooth, moving, death, and military deployment of a parent. An example of the theme of grief and loss in play therapy is a child reenacting the funeral of a loved one.

 

7. Guilt

Some children that are referred to therapy feel that they are to blame for the difficult things that have happened in their lives. There are many times that children blame themselves for events such as a divorce or trauma of some nature. Guilt may come up in play through a child repeatedly saying “sorry” to a mistake they have made.

 

8. Limits and Boundaries

The theme of limits and boundaries is very typical in children with a history of trauma, are in the foster care system, or have a history of aggression. These children have generally not had many limits and boundaries set in their lives and generally test the play therapist to see what is appropriate in the therapy setting. A large sign of progress in child therapy is when the child no longer needs limits and boundaries set in session. An example of the theme of limits and boundaries in play therapy is when a child does not respect the limits set by the play therapist.

 

9. Nurturance

This is personally one of my favorite themes in play therapy. The theme of nurturance shows that the child is beginning to progress through treatment. This can be exhibited through a child feeding a baby doll with a bottle.

 

10. Perfection

Many anxious children exhibit the theme of perfection in their play. A child exhibiting this theme may feel uptight and uncomfortable in the playroom. They may get frustrated when things are not exactly as they were in the previous session. An example of the theme of perfection in play is when a child is focused on organizing the furniture in the doll house to be “just right.”

 

11. Power and Control

The theme of power and control comes up in almost every session that I have in child centered play therapy. Because CCPT is non-directive in that the child takes the lead, the theme of power and control can be demonstrated by the child simply choosing what toys to play with in session. This theme is also quite common because children in U.S. culture are not given many opportunities to have power and control in their own lives. An example of power and control in play is when a child decides what toy to play with during the session or tells the therapist what to do in the play.

 

12. Protection and Safety

Protection and safety is a theme that is very common in the playroom. I find this theme particularly common in children with a history of trauma. This theme can be demonstrated in play by the child using a net or prison to contain the characters.

 

13. Regression

Regression is a theme that is common in children with a trauma history that have been parentified, or feel like they have to be a mini parent. These children sometimes feel that they have lost part of their childhood and are therefore recreating it in the playroom. Regression can be observed the in play therapy when a child is using “baby talk,” crawling like a baby, and using a bottle like a baby.

 

14. Self-Esteem

Some children, especially those with anxiety or depression, effectively demonstrate through play therapy how they feel about themselves. These children will typically exhibit the theme of self-esteem. This theme can be shown in play by the child being proud of something they created or accomplished within the session.

 

15. Trust and Betrayal

Many children referred to child therapy are in therapy due to situations regarding trust and betrayal. Therefore, child therapists should expect to see this theme emerge early on in treatment. An example of trust and betrayal in session is when the child does not feel comfortable telling the therapist a secret.

 

 

Therapists should be mindful of when there are recurrent themes in the child’s play both within a session and overtime in treatment. This can provide insight into what is important to the child and how they are progressing through treatment. To help keep play therapy themes in mind, I created an infographic shown below that may be helpful! 

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Until next time, Play On!

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