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How To Set Limits in Play Therapy

Limits are a vital piece of play therapy. Limits are rules or guidelines for behavior in the play room. When setting limits, the therapist defines the specific limit, the feeling that the child is experiencing behind the limit, and states and enforces the consequences if the limits are broken.

In Child-Centered Play Therapy (CCPT), limits:

  • Assist children in defining their boundaries
  • Help the child feel safe
  • Encourage the child to explore their environment
  • Inspire the child to try out behaviors

Limits help children learn that what happens to them is a consequence of their behavior. Children learn to take responsibility of their actions when there is adequate limit setting and follow through with consequences.

Limits are generally set when there is a danger to the client, property, or the therapist. Limits can additionally be set based on a particular therapist’s preferences. For example, I typically set a limit that the child must not go into my desk. This is not a limit that is typically set because traditional play therapy takes place in a play room, not an office.

Prior to setting a limit, consider the following:

  • Is the limit necessary for the safety of the child?
  • Is the limit necessary for the safety of others?
  • Is the limit necessary for the protection of property?
  • Is the limit enforceable?

In play therapy, it is encouraged to set as few limits as possible. This is because children cannot remember so many rules. It would be out of the question to come into the playroom and state to the child, “Johnny, this is your special play time. You can do almost anything you want…..except stand on the chair, get into my desk, throw the toys, hit me with the pretend sword, run around the room, break the toys…..” This would be a big no-no in the world of CCPT!

Another reason why it is important to set as few limits as possible is so that the child can still lead the session. One of the key aspects of CCPT is that it is child directed. Limits can be interpreted as the adult leading the session. However, when only important limits are set, the child can still explore important situations while staying safe.

Finally, the fewer limits imposed, the more likely it is that the limits will be enforced every time they are broken. Not only is it difficult for a child to remember all of the rules, but it is difficult for the therapist to remember as well. When the therapist has set limits that they enforce, it creates a consistent environment that allows the child to explore their world.

So…..how are limits set?

 1. Determine if the limit is necessary

Remember, limits are typically set if there are concerns about the safety of the child, the safety of others, the safety of property, and overall has to be enforceable. Some examples of limits that are typically set in CCPT include:

  • Throwing objects at mirrors, windows, computers, or other electronics
  • Breaking toys
  • Spit at the therapist
  • Hurting the play therapist or the child hurting themselves
  • Leaving the play therapy space

2. State the limit

Be clear and authoritative when setting the limit with the child. Catch their attention by saying their name. Then, reflect their desired action and state the limit. Finally, redirect the child by giving them an alternative to the behavior. All together, the statement of a limit would sound like this:

“Johnny, one thing that we can’t do is throw the toy at the window. I know you are really mad. Instead, you can throw this ball on the ground.”

If the child asks why the limit has to be set, you can give a simple explanation.

“You really want to know why we can’t throw the toy at the window. Part of my job is to keep you safe. Throwing the toy at the window is unsafe and could break the window.”

3. Warning

There are many instances in which the child may break the previously stated limit a second time. Remind the child of the first warning, re-state the limit, and inform the client about what will happen if they break the limit a third time.

“Johnny remember what I said about throwing the toy at the window. You are very angry right now. Remember you can throw the ball on the ground instead. If you throw the toy at the window, we will be done with the toy for today.”

In traditional CCPT, it is encouraged that if the limit has to be stated a second time, the consequence will be that the session will be over for the day. This is due to children not wanting to lose their time in the playroom. This may be possible in some settings, but not in others. In my personal setting, I take the object away as a consequence.

4. Enforcement of consequences

If the child breaks the limit for the third time, it is vital that the therapist follows through with the consequences. This not only means that the therapist means business but that they genuinely care about the safety of the child. To do this, restate the rule and enforce the consequences. To be taken seriously by the client, use a firm but pleasant tone.

“Johnny you threw the toy at the window again, so now I have to take the toy away. I can see you are upset. You will be able to play with the toy the next time we meet.”

Setting limits this way communicates to the child that they are responsible for what happens. When the child makes the choice to break a limit after being previously warned, the child knows what the results will be. After children learn that the therapist follows through with consequences and that they mean what they say, the amount of limits needing to be set will decrease.

An important thing to remember about limits is that if a new limit is broken,  the whole process starts over again! If the child throws a toy at the window, that’s one limit, if the child spits on the therapist, it’s another limit.

The great thing about limits is that they can be taught to parents and implemented at home. Tune in later this week to learn more! Until then, Play On!

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