Children and play go hand-in-hand, but many people don’t realize that play actually isn’t just about fun and games. Play therapy is becoming a more and more popular approach to helping children process their emotions in a healthy way. This type of intervention shows promise in being particularly helpful for children with medical complexities. When your child has a serious medical condition, you spend a lot of time worrying about their physical health, but their mental health is just as important. Most parents of children with medical complexities are aware that their child’s condition takes an emotional toll, but they may be hesitant to introduce their child to yet another health care provider with therapy. However, therapy can help your child develop healthy coping mechanisms which can improve their mental health, and with a strategy like play therapy, they can have fun along the way as well.

Why Play?

For some people, play seem like a fun but not very important part of life. In reality, play is important for our development and happiness. Play makes us more optimistic and boosts our mood. Play is how children explore their identities, develop creative expression, learn about the world, and process their emotions. Play is a safe space for children to practice their roles in society and develop survival techniques as a result. This means that play can provide incredible insight into one’s well-being and psychological profile.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy was first developed at the beginning of the 20th century, but today it is an umbrella term for several different therapeutic methods that use play as a tool. Play therapy isn’t the same as playing because the therapist uses the sessions to help the child address their emotional problems. By building on the play process which is naturally therapeutic, therapists can effectively teach children to communicate with others, express their feelings, solve problems, change behavior, and relate to other people. By providing some psychological distance, it creates a safe way for children to explore their feelings and thoughts.

Why Play in Therapy?

Play therapy may sound straightforward, but it is a structured therapeutic approach based in psychological research. Play therapy essentially builds upon the inherent process of play. With play, the therapist is able to surmise what is on a child’s mind without verbal language, which can be particularly helpful for children who are nonverbal, but is also just advantageous in general because children don’t usually have the vocabulary to express their feelings in the same way as an adult. Play is essentially the language of children. This is how the therapist can both learn about the child’s emotional state and help them develop the tools they need to cope. Play therapy can also be effective because as the bond between therapist and child develops, the emotional connection can be healing in and of itself.

How Can a Child with Medical Complexities Benefit from Play Therapy?

Living with a serious medical condition is an emotionally intense experience for anyone, but for a child, it is particularly troubling. They are experiencing difficult symptoms and painful treatments, but also lack the mental maturity of an adult to fully understand what is going on. For many children with medical complexities, trauma from treatments is common. Of course, the doctors and other healthcare professionals that perform these treatments have no ill will, but after a lifetime of undergoing uncomfortable procedures, it’s normal for them to have some anxiety about experiencing more medical treatments. From blood draws to infusions to injections to tracheostomies and ventilators, there are many invasive procedures that children with medical complexities endure. This can often manifest in the child acting out, resisting treatment and unintentionally making daily life a challenge for themselves, their family, and their caregivers. They may have trouble sleeping, be constantly anxious, or erupt in frequent temper tantrums. This is when it is most common for children to be referred to therapy. However, given their experience with healthcare professionals thus far, many children are understandably resistant to the therapeutic process.

This is where play therapy can be particularly advantageous for children with medical complexities. Play therapy doesn’t necessarily feel like therapy in a traditional sense; for the child, it is more like having fun with a new friend. The actual emotional processing doesn’t feel like a treatment in the way they are used to; it’s actually enjoyable. Play therapy for children with medical complexities can be a safe, nonthreatening place for them to explore their identities, feelings, thoughts, and emotions. There are no doctors, no medical procedures, no medications — simply toys and a calm person to play with. In general, play therapists take a nondirective approach, letting the child naturally lead the session where it will go by choosing their play activities. Through the use of toys, children with medical complexities are able to connect with the emotional aspect of their condition without having to talk directly about it.

We hope that this post helped you develop an understanding of play therapy so that it might benefit your child. At Evergreen, we are happy to offer a variety of resources of our pediatric home health care patients in Denver. By working with one of our Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), you can find a therapist in the area who can provide compassionate play therapy to your child with medical complexities. If you need to connect with the community to help your child thrive, contact us today to get started.