When you think of play therapy, you may picture certain activities with kids such as coloring or drawing, playing board games, or running around outside. When you picture these things, you may ask if play therapy can benefit teens. While those things you pictured in your mind certainly do represent some aspects of play therapy, they do not paint a full picture. First, it is a somewhat narrow view of what happens during play therapy, and it is a limited concept of what it can be. Second, it represents a common view society has of play therapy – that is only beneficial for children. The truth is that there are a lot of benefits to be had from play, and play therapy is an effective for many ages. One particular age group that is often overlooked when it comes to play therapy is adolescence. Teens can see many benefits from play therapy that are worth exploring.
What Is Play Therapy?
Before we dive into the benefits of play therapy for teenagers, it is important to have an understanding of what play therapy is. According to the Association for Play Therapy, play therapy is “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.” In other words, play therapy is using play to process issues and encourage growth, much like how other forms of therapy use their tools to assist clients in processing and growing. Garry Landreth and Sue Bratton discuss the importance of play therapy as a nonverbal means of expression: “Emotionally significant experiences can be expressed more comfortably and safely through the symbolic representation the toys provide” They further state that by acting out through play a frightening or traumatic experience, it can assist in processing the experience. Play therapy can also improve socialization skills, build interoceptive awareness, and build rapport with the therapist while evoking positive emotions.There is so much play can do!
Lego Therapy and Teens
One type of play therapy used commonly with teens, especially teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder, is Lego Therapy. This form of play has been studied in high schools and shown to build social skills, but it can also be used for other goals, such as problem solving. Lego therapy is particularly accessible to teens due to legos being a form of play from most teens’ childhood. Multiple sources sing the praises of the effectiveness of lego therapy for teens. One study found that “Lego Therapy groups can be an effective school-based social skills intervention for adolescents,” while a blog post by Abigail Joachim referenced a study where “Slowly, interactions became more reciprocal and social cues started to be recognised and responded to. The young people became more willing to advise others rather than try to build alone, and they seemed to be working together instead of simply tolerating each other.” Though most research done on lego therapy is centered on teens with autism, the success could indicate potential success with teens of all types.
Does Play Therapy Help Teens With Bullying?
One of the most common issues for teenagers, particularly in schools, is bullying. A study presented in 2017 at the Health Science International Conference explored the impact of using play therapy to address bullying between teens. The study used the game “Snakes and Ladders” to teach teens the details and effects of bullying. Shockingly, the study reports that “In terms of attitude, as much as 70% of teens expressed fairness on bullying. Teens consider that bullying is an event that happens naturally. 10% of teens believe that bullying will vanish or will be forgotten along with time.” The study suggests that using the game helps promote awareness that could lead to a reduction in bullying.
Other Methods of Play Therapy That Benefit Teens
A form of play that is often used with teenagers is table-top gaming, such as Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons is a story-based game where players create characters and navigate the story together through choices. At least one research paper found that playing this game has value in a therapy setting. A March 2021 study found “a case could be made” that Dungeons and Dragons could be used to develop social skills in autistic teenagers. The author says, “To begin, games have the capacity to create a safe space. Furthermore, playing Dungeons and Dragons can create an accessibility point for clients who may be able to expand their social circle through the game. Dungeons and Dragons as an intervention builds upon other interventions that are established and effective, such as sand tray therapy, and thus it will be accessible to therapists of various schools.”
One final form of play that benefits teens is improvisational games. Improv games through the Improv for Therapists program have been known to help clients with reframing, decatastrophizing, and developing distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. The Improv Therapy website describes its mission this way: “Improv Therapy Group engages the principles of improv to teach individuals, helping professionals, groups, and organizations improve communication, practice life skills, heal through laughter, engage in self-care, and embrace imperfection.”
What Do Garrett Counseling’s Counselors Say About Play Therapy and Teens?
Many of our counselors at Garrett Counseling utilize play therapy with teens. We asked them about how they use play therapy and what benefits they see when using it:
Counselor Lee said this about how play helps teens heal from childhood trauma:
“I would say that many teens have a complex history of trauma and sometimes are forced to grow up too quickly. They are sometimes deprived of the normal experiences of learning play as a child, and play therapy can help teens relearn the language of play and facilitate expression when it otherwise is difficult or painful to do.”
Counselor Lynsey shared this quote from one of her biggest influences, along with a few words of her own:
“One of my favorite quotes about games is ‘Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.’ – Bernard Suits; I think that neatly sums up why I use play therapy with my teens – it helps them widen their window of tolerance while developing social and emotional skills.”
There is so much versatility in how play can be used to help teenagers! If you are looking for a play therapist in Alabama, our counselors in Jacksonville, Boaz, and Huntsville are eager to work alongside you and your child. Contact us today at (256) 239-5662 or online.
This article was written by Ben Lighter, a mental health professional at Garrett Counseling in Huntsville, AL. Learn more about Ben here.