Helping Children Through Divorce

Helping Children Through Divorce

Seven Important Facts Parents Need to Know Before You Begin Play Therapy

There are numerous books on play therapy for children. Therapists on television suggest it to help youngsters get through a life trauma. But play therapy seems like a foreign idea to people going through divorce. What exactly is play therapy about?

“Play therapy is a means to learn what is going on with children”, explains Deborah Hohimer, who runs Tender Hearts Child Therapy Center, a group of offices devoted strictly to play therapy in Jackson, Ironton and Marble Hill, Mo. “Play therapy is the best therapy for children, because children do not communicate as well as adults by talking.They use play to express themselves,” she says. “This is a non-threatening approach. They are not asked their feelings or opinions, but are expected to play,” says Hohimer.

“When children are playing, a therapist can frequently determine what is going on through what the child does. A lot of the things that they say comes from the play itself, in terms of projecting feelings and thoughts,” says Jack Dymond, a therapist in Las Vegas, Nev.

First, what does a play therapy facility look like? “A play therapy room is a room filled with toys. These toys include toys that will help address issues of children, such as abuse, neglect, divorce, school failure, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, social skills, grieving or other needs,” Hohimer says.

Next, what does the therapist do to help children during each session? Peggy Utecht, a social worker in Houston, Tex., likes to let children speak to her as they play, instead of asking them direct questions. “Most of the time, you follow the children.I don’t bring up the topic. When they’re kids, they will take you where you need to go,” she says.

“The process used during play therapy is to treat the topic and find an answer to it as the child is playing. A child leads the therapy sessions, at their pace. When they are ready to address an issue, it will become a part of their play. They resolve the issue in their play, with the guidance of a trained play therapist, and the issue disappears from their play,” says Hohimer.

Jack Dymond says that one of the most powerful means of a child showing inner emotion is through pictures and artwork. “Sometimes, what is a good idea is to have them draw a house, a tree, and a person, drawing with a pencil, and getting an idea of how they see themselves, view their home and surroundings and whether they’re well grounded or not, if they have windows in the house to let light in. Those kinds of things are helpful in learning where they come from, in terms of their family.”

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“Another thing I ask is to draw their family and position in the family,” he says.

Subtle things in the drawings show more than hidden meaning. The way a child draws explains what he or she is going through, things a parent may not immediately recognize. “Are they [the people in the drawings] really tiny, or normal size? Are they huge, and bigger than they are?Are they leaving out one member of the family? Maybe that kind of indicates that they don’t like that member of the family,” Dymond says.

“I have a little girl right now who left the grandfather out of the picture entirely. She’s had trouble communicating with the grandfather. He’s kind of restrictive and punitive. She left him out because she doesn’t regard him as part of her family.”

Dymond says that sometimes, drawing a picture gives clues to a much darker problem. “It’s kind of a projective approach, such as children who are victims of incest or abuse will often draw pictures of big hands that have touched them, but they don’t draw themselves as much as the hand in kind of a nightmarish landscape.”

Sometimes, parents are involved in the therapy session as well. “Most often, what we do is attachment work, and a parent is in the session,” she says. “I structure it more with games. You get to see where you need to go, in terms of connecting with the parent, where their weaknesses are.”

Jack Dymond says that while some play therapists choose to use video games, he refuses to involve them in his sessions. “A child couldn’t really have enough flexibility and freedom to express themselves in an open-ended way. When video games first came out, it was thought, ‘Here’s something that kids will excite themselves with, and enjoy themselves.'”

“It didn’t offer enough information about a child and wasn’t that original. It’s better to do something that comes from their own imagination and feelings, so we don’t use electronic devices,” he says. It’s hard enough for adults to talk about their divorce in therapy. Imagine what it is like for children. “It’s kind of hard to draw the line, but I think that children take a lot longer to build with a therapist [compared to talking with a familiar adult],” says Dymond.

“It seems like it takes a minimum of three sessions to get to feel comfortable with the adult who’s a therapist. They didn’t choose to come to therapy. So the therapist has to win them over with tactics of letting them feel comfortable and protected. With some children who are shut down emotionally, it may take a lot longer,” he says.

Utecht says that the way to end play therapy visits is slowly. “I usually work with attachment. Then you cut back to maintenance. See how that goes. Then, you can stop after a while,” she says. “Kids work in different ways. What happens is when the targeted behavior, or whatever they [parents] bring the child in for, calms down.”

However, things don’t always end with play therapy. Many issues felt during childhood because of divorce recur at an older age. “Kids come back because it doesn’t get all worked out in one series of visits. As they grow up, go through school, puberty, the issues come back. It’s not that neat,” says Utecht.

Deborah Hohimer says that the length of time a child should remain in play therapy varies according to what is happening at home, not just the progress made during therapy. “A child’s healing directly relates to the parent’s functioning. If a parent is depressed and not functioning well, then this will have a big impact on the child. If the parents are fighting and putting the child in the middle of the battle, then this child will have a more difficult time with their recovery,” she says.

“If the child is also dealing with a parent who is dating someone and he/she is expected to build a relationship with this person (and perhaps relatives to this person), then the child will need to be in therapy longer.”

Hohimer adds that another factor is when and how frequent the sessions are. “It also depends on how often the child is seen for a therapy session. Children need weekly therapy sessions, and if this does not happen, the healing process will take much longer.”

Overall, Dymond believes play therapy is an option that should be considered by every parent. “What happens is the process moves to a place where they’re more willing to express themselves. Talking and reacting in a more conventional way can take place,” he says. “Play therapy really works for children. It’s the way they learn how to do things. It’s the way they learn how to express themselves.”


Deborah Hohimer of Tender Hearts Child Therapy Center in Southeastern Missouri outlines the five major groups of toys used during play therapy:

1. Therapeutic Books: “Bilbiotherapy is a good approach for some children. This includes books about divorce, death, behavior, attention problems, etc.”

2. Therapeutic Games: “Children love to play games and respond well to this. There are many games published just for therapy, or a therapist can create his/her own game based on the needs of the child.”

3. Creative Toys: “Toys that allow a child to use their creative skills.This may include paints, markers, scrapbooking supplies, clay, items to make collages, building blocks, etc.”

4. Aggressive Toys: “Toys that allow a child to express angry feelings.This may include guns, knives, dress up clothes, army men, voracious animals or puppets.”

5. Role Playing Toys: “Toys that allows a child to pretend.All our playrooms have a pretend kitchen, baby doll, dress up clothes, cash registers, phones, doctor kits, doll houses, and puppets. These are toys that will allow a child to express many different feelings and act out things that have affected them.”


Experts share seven facts you need to know before beginning play therapy:

1. The positive effects of play therapy aren’t limited to overcoming divorce.

“There are all kinds of benefits, not just emotional growth, but spiritual growth, connections with their lives,” says Peggy Utech, a social worker in Houston, Tex.

2. Just as you would check to see if a physician is board certified in his or her field, double check if someone has been trained in play therapy.

“There are therapists who buy a few toys and claim to be a play therapist,” says Deborah Hohimer of Tender Hearts Child Therapy Center. “In order to be a play therapist, a therapist has to have special training.A registered play therapist has to have 150 hours of play therapy training and work two years under the supervision of a play therapist.This is very important.”

3. If asked to be involved in a therapy session, do it.It may help the therapist solve you and your children’s problems more easily.

“Sometimes, it’s interesting to see if the parents want to be involved and see how they interact with the child in the office and do structured activities,” says Jack Dymond, a therapist in Las Vegas, Nev.

4. Taking your children in for play therapy may help you discover other non-divorce problems.

“It can reveal other things that are going on.If a child wants to escape a teacher,” Dymond says. “They’re acting out and maybe hope that they don’t want to see that person anymore.”

5. Don’t write off your kids’ bad actions.If you see your child behaving badly, that may be a sign of something wrong…more than you expect.

“It’s hard to tell if a child is depressed, because they don’t act in the same way. For instance, a young child who’s abused might steal things or do things that their parents aren’t happy about, but it might be a way to get something done that they can’t get done normally, and at a level that’s not totally conscious on their part,” Dymond says.

6. Taking kids out of play therapy without warning will not only hurt your children’s progress, it may make them worse than before.

“Sometimes, parents will just pull the kids. You don’t just stop,” says Utecht.

7. Remember that there isn’t a set time restriction on play therapy.

“The amount of time a child needs to stay in therapy is dependent on many things. Children can heal at different rates,” says Hohimer.

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