Connecting with adolescents and building a therapeutic alliance can be daunting for even a seasoned therapist. How can trust be established and a relationship built when an adolescent is reluctant to engage with a therapist? Play therapy is the answer! Play gives us an entry into the world of adolescents and enables us to connect with them in a fun and engaging way.
Most adolescents are not interested in talking directly about problems. They are often more receptive to attending therapy sessions when we use fun, playful activities and less direct questioning. Talk therapy uses the left side of the brain. Playful activities tap into the right side of the brain. When we actively engage the whole brain therapy is often more effective and more fun.
When we look developmentally at adolescents, using Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, we see that the primary task of adolescence is identity versus role confusion. There are a variety of activities that can be used in therapy that will help them work on their task of identity. Have on hand an assortment of art supplies such as oil pastels, water colors, brushes, colored pencils, clay, tissue paper, old magazine clippings, etc. These items encourage adolescents to create spontaneous art work such as sculptures, collages, mandalas, masks, squiggles, and doodle art that can reveal who they are, how they see themselves, and their hopes and dreams for the future.
A sandtray and an assortment of miniatures are very appealing to adolescents. They will manipulate the sand with their fingers and hands and add miniatures that represent their experiences and issues that brought them to therapy.
Some adolescents may dislike the words play therapy thinking it is for young children. They may be more comfortable with the term activity therapy. No matter what they call it; playful, expressive activities create a safe distance from real life experiences allowing an adolescent and a therapist to develop an alliance that lays the foundation for a successful outcome.
Pam Dyson, MA, LPC-S, RPT-S owns a private practice in Plano, TX providing parent consultations and play therapy services for children 3-12 years of age. A former early childhood educator with a passion for preschoolers, she is the founder and director of the DFW Center for Play Therapy Training and serves on the board of directors of the Association for Play Therapy.