Fun and games in child therapy

As a therapist, I always cringe a little when I hear parents say, “Go have fun” and then send their children off to session. It’s not that I don’t want the children to have fun; it’s that fun isn’t the main purpose of therapy. What are the purposes of therapy? Regulation, skill building, hope, help, and ultimately, healing. Should there be some fun included in that process? Certainly, but often therapy includes some discomfort along the way. As holistic process, therapy is about much more than just fun and games. 

Therapy often includes learning new skills. Learning new skills can be uncomfortable. Taking the same deep breaths over and over for regulation can be tedious. Naming feelings can be repetitious. Getting asked to describe highs and lows for the week can get boring. The therapist constructs learning opportunities with a purpose, and that main purpose is to meet the client’s goals for treatment. 

Therapy can include some tough conversations. Difficult topics may be breached. The therapist may ask the client to think consider thinking differently. The therapist may have to work with the child to process hard past, present, or future realities. These activities are not always “fun,” though they can be beneficial. 

Therapy is not all doldrums and drudgery though. Fun and games definitely have a place in therapy. Shared humor can help therapist and client build rapport. Laughter can provide reprieve in tense and difficult moments. Games can help teach or reinforce skills. Fun can help with transitions. Games can help apply skills in a non-threatening setting. Fun can help relieve stress, build resilience, and strengthen identity. Games can increase and cement parent-child bonds. Fun and games can become means of self-expression, identity development, and more. 

 As a child and family therapist, I recognize that play is a language of children, and I try to include it in all of my sessions. Is play my primary goal, though? No, but it is another tool I use to achieve the goals of therapy. Play serves important roles for kids. It helps them find their identity, build social relationships, increase self-regulation, and develop grit. Kids should play, that is engage in fun and games, regularly for their mental health. As a therapist, therefore, it is important me for to include play in sessions, and I do. Therapy can (and I would argue, should) include play, fun, and games as the method to achieve higher goals. Therapy includes work, often hard work, but work that pays off in happier, healthier lives. That is the long-term purpose and end goal.