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