Group therapy with children: Some perspectives

Tony White (TSTA)

Transactional Analyst

Friday, 20 May 2011

The original training I did in the psychotherapy with children was done in the group psychotherapy setting. Historically play therapy rooms have been set up with a whole array of apparatus that allows a child to express itself. For instance there can be drawing equipment, a sand tray, clay, paint, water play area and so forth.

The theory behind this is the child through the use of such expressive opportunities will begin to display their internal conflicts or emotional distress. For instance with drawing the child can draw conflicts in the family or between its own internal ego states. This allows for the therapist to begin to understand what the child’s internal conflict and emotional state is like.

Some then hypothesise that as the child displays its angst through play that will allow it to express them and thus they will reduce. This is typical of the theory behind art therapy and some psychoanalytic perspectives. Alternatively those who follow more of the Carl Rogers approach see play as a means by which the child can express itself in the presence of a therapist. The therapist provides an environment that is safe, empathetic and unconditionally accepting of the child. It is the theorised that the child in such an environment will naturally begin to grow and develop towards health.

The psychologist whom I did my first two years of play therapy group training with was psychoanalytic in her perspective. The psychoanalytic perspective, art therapy approach and Rogerian perspectives described above certainly hold merit, in my view. When running play therapy groups I use those approaches.

After finishing my training in play therapy I continued to run play therapy groups. Over time I noticed a change from the style of my original training. As I worked with children I found myself moving onto other techniques that seemed to have a result. This was not a conscious process on my behalf but more of an intuitive process that just evolved over time.

Three techniques that developed over time.

1. The group therapy approaches described above one could call passive approaches. The child is simply left to its own devices would proceed and progress at its own pace with little direction from the therapist. That is indeed why Rogerian therapy is sometimes called non-directive therapy. Over time I found myself becoming more action oriented with the children which more suited my personality as a therapist. Instead of just letting a child express itself through drawing or clay I would be much more interactive in my questioning and comments with the child as he played. Asking what this and that was, requesting they draw word bubbles for the people they were drawing, asking them to write what the various parts or people were thinking and feeling. Getting them to include pets, various other people and objects in the drawings or plasticine.

This allowed for more diagnosis, I was also getting the child to identify its internal conflicts and to basically do what amounted to the two chair technique. Offering them the opportunity to expressed the unexpressed feeling, thought or need.

2. Whilst the techniques being employed tended to be more action oriented so was the relational. The therapeutic relationship between the child and myself moved away from the passive “blank screen” therapist that one would find in the psychoanalytic and Rogerian approaches. When a child made some kind response to me directly I would use it to some therapeutic advantage.

For instance if an anxious child with a high Conforming Child ego state did something a bit rebellious to me I might highlight it and request that she do it again or some other derivative of it to me directly. Alternatively if there was another child in the group who expressed some defiance of me I might ask the conforming child to see if she could say the same to me. Once done she gets to experience the new behaviour and sees that my response back to her is not catastrophic or demeaning and so forth.

The relational contact between the child and myself became much more interactive and goal oriented with myself manipulating it in various ways for various goals. Over time this became a point of significant departure from how I was originally trained.

Again this was not a conscious goal of mine, it just evolved over time. As I became more adept and confident in working with children in the group therapy setting I allowed my own natural personality to come out in that forum. This is what I say to trainee therapists. Initially you begin as a technique based therapist. What you do with the client is based on what techniques you have learnt in your training. As one gets more confident then you the therapist as a person enters into your therapeutic style. One transforms from being a therapist named ‘Tony’ to being “Tony’ who happens to be in a therapist. Hence the client will experience you as a person who also happens to be a therapist rather than the other way around.

3. Finally there was the development of romp play which was not included in my original training. The most common approach in play therapy with children is as I described before. A low key, meditative, self explorative type of approach. Over time I developed this thing called romp play which is a far more cathartic approach. It is high energy, boisterous, jumping, rough and tumble, interactional type of play. From what I have seen of the literature this is quite unusual. Whilst some other approaches do have some cathartic methods they are nothing like the romp play described here.

Originally it evolved as a method for children to develop their own internal Parent ego state controls. It is structured such that the group proceeds with – romp play on, romp play off, romp play on, romp play off and so forth.

Romp play is high energy Free Child behaviour. Whilst that is all good and well the problem with high Free Child is people can end up getting hurt physically and emotionally. Unrestrained Free Child can be dangerous. One needs to develop a Parent ego state that can control it when necessary. In the group any child could put a stop to the romp play at any time by using a prearranged word and all the romp play would stop. Those children who found it hard to stop would be stopped by the therapist. This allowed the children to begin incorporating this into their own Parent ego state. They learnt how to be Free Child and how to contain it when necessary. They were learning the internal controls to do that by their own Parent ego state.

However I think there is more to romp play than just this, although it is hard for me to articulate what that actually is. I could just recite the theory and say that the Free Child is that natural part in all of us and thus when expressed we are being our natural selves in this way. One can assume that when such expression is achieved this will be therapeutic in itself. This is probably all true but there is something that nags in the back of my mind about this. There is something more to this romp type of play for children that I feel the theory is yet to enunciate. When children have an opportunity to do a very free type of play and relating there is some kind of therapeutic effect on them that I cannot yet describe.

More on this can be found at:

White, T & Coleman, J. “Playing with Children”. Western Pacific Association of Transactional Analysts Bulletin. 1988, Vol 1, Page 9 – 13.

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