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As a therapist who works with teenagers, I can tell you that there is often a lot of resistance to therapy and talking about what is happening in their life. In these instances, one effective way of doing therapy is by using play/art therapy. However, I have also heard from a lot of parents and teenagers that they do not think play therapy will work and they take their child to another therapist. So, is play therapy effective with teenagers?
First, what is play therapy and why does it exist? For me, as a therapist, play therapy is any time that games, crafts, music, etc. is used in place of talk therapy. I have found great success in using play therapy because play therapy allows for different ways of expressing what is happening in one’s world. Play therapy allows people to express themselves without being held back by words. Of course, this is very effective for children because they can fully express themselves without needing a complete vocabulary; however, for some problems, words are not adequate to express what is happening in one’s world.
With teenagers, there can be many reasons why they are resistant to talking to a therapist (fear, shame/embarrassment, rebellion) but one often overlooked reason is that they do not trust the therapist with their innermost feelings and thoughts. Most people, in general, do not want to talk to a complete stranger about their problems. For this reason, starting with a game/activity in the first session can help a teenager relax and begin to build a relationship with the therapist.
Another issue that teenagers can face is that sometimes they do not have the words to fully express what is happening in their life. Most teenagers are trying to develop their identity and their basic understanding and sometimes they cannot fully express why they are depressed. However, if they are given other tools to use than words they might be able to help the therapist fully understand their situation. For example, a teenager may not be able to comprehend why having their best friend ditch them for someone else makes them so depressed. However, if they can draw a picture of what is happening inside their head, or use toys to build what is happening in their heart, they can help the therapist understand that they feel alone, betrayed, and worried about losing their social status.
Lastly, sometimes it is more comfortable to talk about what is going on from a distant point of view. For example, it may be too painful for a teenager to admit that they need help; but, if they are playing a game and the question comes up, “How do you think Sally would feel about needing to ask for help with anxiety?” they can actually talk about what is going on inside them without worrying about being judged or getting over emotional.
In conclusion, in my experience, play therapy with teenagers does work. It works because it gives them tools to build a relationship with the therapist. It works because it gives them the means to express themselves beyond words. It works because it gives them freedom from judgment and fear. This is why I use play therapy with teenagers.
Lexi is a therapist at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families. She is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist and specializes in working with children and adolescents in therapy.