Theraplay® assumes that the primary motivating force in human behavior is a drive toward relatedness to others not objects. Personality development is at its core interpersonal. The early interactions between parent and child are the crucible in which the self and personality develop. During treatment sessions objects are not used to resolve issues of childhood trauma, attachment, or abuse. Instead the therapist and parent(s) control and direct the play, they become the most enticing toys in the room. Theraplay® is sometimes confused with play therapy, whereby a child’s experiences, feelings, and knowledge are communicated through self-directed play. Because Theraplay is directed by the adults, it works well for traumatized children, where play therapy does not.

Parent(s) must be playful, joyful, empathic, and attuned caregivers in order to facilitate secure attachment and a right sense of self in a child. When this happens the child’s inner representation is that of a lovable, special, and competent human being who can reciprocate those representations onto those within his or her inner circle. He or she beings to learn that the world is a positive and safe place with caring individuals with whom they can securely attach and who are there to help them develop and explore.

Many behaviors exhibited by traumatized children can be traced back to their negative views of themselves and the world. Because of this it is imperative to provide the positive experiences that were missing in the early years. Therefore, activities are geared to the child’s current emotional level rather than to chronological age. The goal of treatment is to change the inner representation of the self and others from a negative to a more positive one. Treatment duration is usually 30-45 minutes, once a week for 18-20 sessions. Initially the therapist is the adult directing play and interacting with the child; over time the parent(s) are expected to take over the play; thus, developing the bonds of attachment.

The following are resources to learn more:

The Core Concepts of Theraplay
The Theraplay Institute provides access to research articles, guides for parents, and a directory of Theraplay therapists.
Video describing how Theraplay works – from Hillside – a residential treatment center
Theraplay Goes to the Classroom

Adoption Quarterly Article about effectiveness of Whole Family Theraplay 


A family therapist working with a child and their parents in a theraplay institute


The Benefits of Theraplay: Enhancing Pediatric Therapy at Home

Imagine a therapy that strengthens the bond between parent and child, addresses various challenges, and improves daily functioning, all through the power of play. This is Theraplay, a unique and effective approach to pediatric therapy that has transformed countless lives for over five decades. We’ll explore the origins, principles, techniques, and real-life success stories of Theraplay, as well as how to become a certified Theraplay therapist.

Key Takeaways


The Origins of Theraplay

In the late 1960s, Ann Jernberg developed Theraplay with the mission of enhancing parent-child relationships and providing therapy services. She saw the need for a treatment program that could be implemented at Head Start facilities, focusing on improving human behavior and relationships. Presently, Theraplay has grown internationally via The Theraplay Institute, offering education and therapy sessions for families requiring assistance.

Theraplay is not just limited to young children; it can be adapted for teenagers and adults, including those with developmental delays. Professionals dealing with children can apply Theraplay to encourage sound relationships within the family and aid in motor skills development. Typically, this approach is employed in treatment with individuals up to age 12, including socially withdrawn children.

The Theraplay Institute acts as a central point for education, materials, and assistance for those keen on integrating Theraplay into their work. The institute offers various services, including certifications, workshops, and publications to promote the effective implementation of Theraplay.

Key Principles of Theraplay

An image showcasing the key principles of Theraplay, a child and family therapy approach focused on building and enhancing attachment, self-esteem, trust, and joy through playful interactions.

At the heart of Theraplay are the four fundamental dimensions of a healthy parent-child relationship, which include specific behaviors, activities, and words that promote positive relationships. Theraplay incorporates concepts from attachment theory, self-psychology, and object relations theory to create a comprehensive framework for fostering healthy connections between parents and children.

Theraplay boasts high adaptability and is applicable in diverse environments like offices, schools, and telehealth platforms. It is recognized by the California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for its effectiveness in promoting secure attachment, attunement to the child, and contingent responsiveness.

Concentrating on these fundamental principles and dimensions, Theraplay provides a distinctive therapeutic approach that tackles specific problems while also contributing to a solid foundation for a child’s future mental wellbeing.

Theraplay Techniques and Methods

Theraplay uses a range of techniques and methods to foster a robust bond between parent and child. These activities may include:


The tools utilized in Theraplay may differ based on the family, and the Theraplay Institute offers kits that can be procured if specific tools are desired.

Sessions 6-25 involve Theraplay, a model which promotes positive parent-child relationships. Standard games, interactions and activities are employed to foster this goal. Theraplay promotes behaviors that nurture feelings of warmth, safety, and comfort between parent and child, helping to regulate the child’s behavior and express love, joy, and safety. These techniques and methods constitute the heart of Theraplay, generating a distinctive and captivating therapy experience for both parents and children.

Implementing Theraplay: Session Structure and Process

A standard Theraplay session includes two therapists, parents, and the child, with activities customized to the family’s needs based on interviews and video analysis. The Marschak Interaction Method (MIM) is a structured procedure used to assess the connection between two individuals and identify relationship strengths and weaknesses.

During the fourth session of Theraplay, the therapist and parents discuss the findings of the MIM and outline the treatment plan for the family. Theraplay sessions typically last between 30 and 60 minutes, ensuring a focused and engaging experience for all involved.

The fifth treatment session serves to:


Addressing Specific Challenges with Theraplay

A family working with a theraplay therapist to address specific challenges

With the rise of telehealth, the Theraplay Institute offers a range of resources to support therapists in delivering Theraplay in a remote setting, ensuring accessibility and convenience for families. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of Theraplay in tackling problems such as:


Theraplay, a form of family therapy, focuses on strengthening the bond, trust, and joy between a child and a parent through interactive and playful activities, fostering a positive relationship.

Theraplay can be tailored to different settings by utilizing its techniques in classrooms, daycares, and residential settings. Group Theraplay sessions can be conducted with family groups or in school settings, and Theraplay can be modified from a dyadic parent-child intervention to a group format, such as Sunshine Circles. Additionally, Theraplay activities are available for older children and young teens, making it a versatile and adaptable therapy option.

Theraplay therapy sessions are adjusted to align with therapeutic goals to tackle specific challenges, enabling a more focused and impactful play therapy experience for the child and their family.

Becoming a Certified Theraplay Therapist

To qualify as a certified Theraplay therapist, the candidate must:


These training programs are designed to provide instruction to mental health professionals, teachers, and other individuals who regularly interact with children and families. The Theraplay Institute offers a range of training options for therapists, including virtual training and combining Theraplay with other modalities such as TBRI.

Potential Limitations and Concerns

Despite Theraplay’s encouraging research evidence, potential limitations should be considered, like situations where the caregiver is abusive, dependent on substances, or when the child has severe cognitive deficits. Research has demonstrated that Theraplay is effective in enhancing the attachment between children and their caregivers, including those with abusive caregivers. Studies have indicated that Theraplay can improve the relationship and interaction between children and their caregivers, thereby facilitating healing and healthy attachment.

However, research suggests that Theraplay may not be as effective in addressing the specific needs and challenges associated with severe cognitive deficits, and children with severe cognitive deficits may experience limited success from Theraplay. It is essential to evaluate each situation individually and consider alternative therapies when necessary to ensure the best possible outcome for the child and their family.


In conclusion, Theraplay is a unique and effective approach to pediatric therapy that has transformed countless lives for over five decades. By focusing on the key principles of healthy parent-child relationships and utilizing tailored techniques and methods, Theraplay promotes secure attachment, attunement, and contingent responsiveness. With its versatility and adaptability, Theraplay addresses a wide range of challenges and can be implemented in various settings, making it an invaluable tool for mental health professionals and educators alike.

As we have seen through real-life success stories and testimonials, Theraplay has the potential to create lasting positive change in the lives of children and their families. By becoming a certified Theraplay therapist or incorporating Theraplay techniques into one’s practice, professionals can make a meaningful impact on the lives of countless children and families in need.