Filial Play Therapy
For individuals in the U.S. & U.S. territories
In Filial Play Therapy, Dr. Risë VanFleet demonstrates this approach to helping parents develop their relationships with their children through nondirective play. Filial play therapy creates a safe atmosphere where children can express themselves, try new things, learn about social rules and restrictions, develop family attachments, and develop effective social skills and bonds.
Because filial play therapy is a developmentally attuned way of communicating and understanding, it can be used with nearly all child problems. Research has shown that play therapy is more effective when parents are involved, so this approach involves training parents how to effectively play with their children.
In this session, Dr. VanFleet works with an 8-year-old girl and her mother. First she plays with the girl while her mother watches and then talks with the mother about how the play went. Afterward, Dr. VanFleet plays with the mother, training and coaching her in nondirective play skills that will help her develop a stronger relationship with her daughter.
Filial play therapy is a relatively short-term child and family intervention with long-term results. Conceived in the early 1960s by Drs. Bernard and Louise Guerney, it has been extensively developed and researched for over 45 years. Filial therapy is a psychoeducational family intervention in which the therapist trains and supervises parents as they hold special child-centered play sessions with their own children, thereby engaging parents as partners in the therapeutic process and empowering them to be the primary change agents for their own children.
Filial therapy represents a theoretical integration of a number of orientations into a comprehensive approach to eliminate presenting problems, improve parent–child relationships, and strengthen the family system as a whole. It has wide applicability with very consistent research results indicating significant improvements in child problems, parents' skills, parents' acceptance of their children, parent satisfaction, and gains maintained up to 5 years, as well as significant decreases in parents' stress levels, therapy drop-out rates, and excessive utilization of services.
In filial play therapy, after an initial assessment including a family play observation, the therapist demonstrates child-centered play sessions with each child in the family while the parents observe. After full discussion of the play sessions with the parents, the training phase begins. The therapist draws from behavioral and social learning theory to prepare parents to hold play sessions. Using mock play sessions (behavioral rehearsals), the therapist pretends to be a child while the parents practice the four play session skills (structuring, empathic listening, child-centered imaginary play, and limit-setting). The therapist ensures parent success in mastering the skills using an empowering, positive approach.
Next, the parents hold short play sessions with their children under the direct supervision of the therapist. Each play session is followed by a debriefing period in which the parents and therapist discuss their skill development as well as play themes and other dynamic issues that arise.
When the parents are competent and confident in conducting the play sessions, they hold them weekly with each child at home, meeting with the therapist to discuss the sessions, family changes, and how to incorporate the use of the skills to everyday life. Many families choose to continue holding the play sessions long after therapy ends because of their power to enhance family relationships and prevent future problems.
Throughout the process, the therapist is open, genuine, and accepting of the parents. Therapist empathy provides a safe context in which parents can change, just as parents' acceptance during play sessions offers children a secure environment in which they can explore, develop, and overcome difficulties.
Filial therapy has been used successfully as a preventive program to strengthen families as well as a therapeutic intervention for many child and family problems: anxiety, depression, child maltreatment, single parenting, adoption/foster-care/kinship-care, attachment problems, divorce, family substance abuse, traumatic events, oppositional defiant disorder, anger and aggression problems, chronic medical illness, step-parenting, relationship problems, multiproblem families, and so on. It also has very high transcultural applicability, and worldwide interest has grown rapidly in recent years.
In addition to its use in clinical practice, other adaptations include its use in Head Start, elementary schools, and hospitals. Filial play therapy has helped strengthen families impacted by natural disasters, community violence, or terrorism, such as after the 9/11/01 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, and military families have found it valuable to offset the stress of separation, change, and loss.
Risë VanFleet, PhD, is the founder and president of the Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center, Inc., in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, an organization specializing in the training and supervision of child, family, and play therapy professionals as well as the provision of mental health services to children and families. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and The Pennsylvania State University.
A licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania, Dr. VanFleet is also a certified filial therapy therapist, supervisor, and instructor, and a registered play therapist–supervisor. She specializes in strengthening family relationships through play, and has subspecialties in chronic medical illness, disaster mental health, and child–family trauma and attachment interventions using play therapy and filial therapy.
Dr. VanFleet brings 35 years of clinical, supervisory, and leadership experience in community mental health, health care, education, and independent practice settings to her workshops. She has trained and supervised thousands of clinicians internationally. In addition, she is the author of Filial Therapy: Strengthening Parent–Child Relationships Through Play and A Parent's Handbook of Filial Play Therapy, and is coeditor of Casebook of Filial Therapy. Her materials have been used by professionals and families in more than 40 countries.
Dr. VanFleet has been honored with the Bernard G. and Louise F. Guerney Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice and Training in Filial Therapy (The Association of Filial and Relationship Enhancement Methods). She is a cofounder of the International Collaborative on Play Therapy and a past president/board chair of the Association for Play Therapy. She is also involved in the research and use of animals in play therapy, and uses one of her dogs as a pet play therapy dog.
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