In therapy, we give to others based on who we are, and not what we know. Landreth, (2002), asserts this is especially true for when working with children. Creating a therapeutic atmosphere, displays of personal courage, and self-understanding, are important for therapists when working with children (Landreth, 2002). Below, I describe each of these qualities and discuss areas in need of improvement.
Creating a Therapeutic Atmosphere.
The adult-child relationship that exists in the context of play therapy is unique in every child’s experience (Landreth, 2002). Rarely experienced with adults, child therapists engage in a playful interaction that is not “verbally bound” (Landreth, 2002, p96). Child therapists display a genuine sensitivity and interest in a child’s thoughts and feelings. Landreth’s (2002) description of the respect and sensitivity required in play therapy, reminds of Marsha Linehan’s concept of emotional validation. When a child’s perspective is met with validation, they allowed experience acceptance, understanding, and a sense of legitimacy (Linehan, 1997). Rather than managing or correcting a client’s feelings, a child therapist should seek to respect the validity of this experience from the child’s viewpoint (Linehan, 1997). The intentionality required to provide this therapeutic atmosphere, requires a great amount of awareness (Landreth, 2002).
When I consider all that is required to provide this therapeutic environment, there are several areas of improvement that come to mind. As a mother, letting go of “mommy-mode” will be a challenge as I adopt the child therapist’s perspective. The disciplinary and limit setting elements of motherhood would need to take a back seat. Additionally, as someone who tends to process things verbally, letting go of this mode of interaction for a play-oriented one, would be a new experience for me. One key strength I bring is an appreciation of validation, as a critical element in all therapy (Linehan, 1997). I feel my current profession, has provided me many opportunities to develop this basic skill.
Landreth (2002), discusses several personality characteristics essential for a child therapist. When reviewing these characteristics, I thought personal courage presented the biggest challenge for me personally. Landreth (2002), describes it as a willingness to admit our mistakes and shortcomings (p102). This concept is similar to Brene Brown’s (2006), notion of vulnerability which she defines as a willingness be truly seen by risking exposure. This sort of personal courage goes against one’s natural psychological defenses against hurt or shame (Brown, 2006). Acting as a child therapist out of personal courage requires a non-defensive expressiveness. On the one hand, I do have much patience, and am fairly secure in acknowledging my shortcomings (Landreth, 2002). These qualities can help me display personal courage in my interactions with children during therapy. On the other hand, I do believe a high degree of self-awareness and mindfulness is required. This requires an amount of self-care that is currently hard to sustain, as a night-shift worker. Hopefully, with a different work schedule in my future career, this could be remedied somewhat.
An awareness of our “motivations, blind spots, and biases” (Landreth, 2002, p103), is critical for any therapist. As Landreth, (2002) notes, the values and ideals underlying these issues are integral to who we are, and we should be aware of them for this reason. Since we give to others on the basis of who we are, it is our responsibility to understand how these issues can impede or promote our efforts. While I do consider myself to be a highly self-aware individual as a lifelong self-help junkie, this quality still presents a challenge. The idea that my personal motivations or biases could enter a play therapy setting makes me cringe somewhat. The best solution is to make personal growth and self-care is a priority. This would allow me to gain a awareness of how I become an integral part of the therapeutic relationship so I can act more proactively.
Plan for Improvement
As I read through the above descriptions of three essential qualities, I realize improvement is unlikely to occur overnight. As a student therapist, I believe personal development should be an ongoing concern. The following goals can help me develop these essential skills for working with children in therapy.
Goal One: Seek Opportunities to Work with Children. While this class can provide a vital foundation of knowledge to begin working with children, experience is essential. I need to seek opportunities to work with children, in order to better understand how to be of a therapeutic benefit in this community. This can include seeking work-related opportunities, volunteering, and choosing my internship placement carefully.
Goal Two: Be Mindful of How You Respond to Others’ Emotions. The therapeutic environment child therapist’s seek to create provides clients with a unique respectful and validating experience. Being mindful of how I choose to “attend” to the emotions and thoughts of all children in my life is a good start. How do I take time to listen and acknowledged the grain of truth in my sons’ feelings and thoughts? Do I rush to correct any misperception without listening? Considerations such as these, can help me understand how realistically develop this unique way of relating to children and adolescents.
Goal Three: Display Personal Courage in Conversations with Sons. My oldest son is 15 and lately I’ve found the personal dynamic between us changing. He is very bright and observant, and can at times bring up issues that touch upon my own mistakes and shortcomings. While he doesn’t do so in a disrespectful way, I find I may react with occasional twinges of defensiveness. I’ve currently practiced, the vulnerability that is integral to personal courage in these conversations. This effort has taught me what Landreth (2002) says about how we give to children on the basis of who we are and not our internal knowledge bank.
Goal Four: Journal Regularly & Seek Therapy As Needed. Prior to entering this program, I had been in therapy for about five years. I still remain in contact with my therapist, and as needed, I may still visit her from time to time throughout my career. I believe self-understanding requires commitment in the form of adequate self-care coupled with time for reflection. I enjoy journaling and blogging, and these efforts have provided great insight into myself. I will continue doing these things in order to promote greater self-understanding in my new role as a therapist.
Landreth, G. (2002) Play therapy: The art of the relationship (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Linehan, M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in society: The journal of contemporary social services,87(1), 43-52.