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What is "Play Therapy?" & How Does It Work?

by Heidi Kolman, LCSW

"What are they doing in there?" You may have this thought as your child goes into sessions with his or her play-therapist. It may feel as if your child comes out and only speaks of playing games in there. Certainly you could do this on your own at home and save the money?

What the therapist is doing is guiding your child to project their thoughts and feelings (what they are having trouble with) onto their world of play. Play is the natural language for children: it is how they most easily begin to learn about complicated life situations and the feelings that go with them.

So, while it may seem that they are “just playing,” the therapist is working with them to talk about the complicated, difficult thoughts they are having (“no one likes me”) that cause negative feelings such as “I don’t like myself.”

You may ask, “why project feelings onto something else? Isn’t that a bad thing?” Projection gives us distance from our thoughts. As adults, we distance ourselves with coping mechanisms we have developed over time. We can soothe ourselves by having a cup of tea, playing a match of tennis, or having a nourishing meal to cope with uncomfortable feelings and situations in a healthy way. Children, on the other hand, still need to develop these skills. Projective techniques give children a safe space to learn about their feelings and experiment with new ways of coping.

One projective technique commonly used in therapy with children is fantasy play, where the child uses the language of their play to express their inner world through the use of miniatures such as dollhouses and sand trays. In working with a therapist in this manner, children gain a better understanding of the word they are living in. They can also master the situations they find themselves engaging in.

Other projective techniques include the use of puppets, music, art, masks, theater games, and movement. Through these techniques, children can be free to create the change they want. This gives them the opportunity to experience the situation and embody the emotion needed to facilitate change and understanding.

Kaduson, H., & Schaefer, C. E. (2010). 101 more favorite play therapy techniques. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.
Association for Play Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.a4pt.org/
What is Drama Therapy? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nadta.org/

(C) 2018 Princeton Group Support Center

5 Tips for Mental & Emotional Spring Cleaning

Spring is a time of change, growth & rebirth for the earth; that's why we often decide to clean and refresh our living spaces. But don't forget about your most important "living space" of all: your mind! Embrace the season with these 5 tips for mental & emotional "spring cleaning."

1. Take Your Time. In today's fast-paced society, it can be tough to slow yourself down. If you find yourself rushing in the morning, try waking up a few minutes earlier, packing your lunch or laying out your clothes the night before, or take a break from scrolling through your phone. Take time for rituals like enjoying your morning cup of coffee or tea. Eat a nourishing breakfast. Your morning can set the pace for your entire day, so make it count.
2. Declutter. Starting with the easiest place, pick an area of your living space and evaluate the items that are in it. Love it? Keep it. Don't love it? Donate it. Not sure? Make a "maybe" box for these items. Revisit your "maybe" box in a few weeks. If you haven't missed using or seeing those items, it's time to let them go. Existing in a space where you are surrounded by only useful or meaningful items has a calming effect.
3. Get Moving. Nourish your mind-body connection with movement or exercise. Whether it's yoga, a light walk, or high intensity interval training, focus on moving your body with purpose and intention. If you already have an exercise routine, try something new: a class with a friend, working out outside, or signing up for a race or challenge.
4. Write it Down. Sometimes our thoughts can create clutter just like in our homes. The act of taking something from out of our mind and putting it on paper frees up our mental space. Keep a list by your bed for those pesky thoughts that pop up as you're trying to sleep. Write down the things you're grateful for. Send a card, letter, or email to a friend you've been meaning to connect with. 
5. Release. If you've been holding onto something emotionally heavy, and feel ready, it's time to release it. Maybe this is a grudge you've been holding onto, a chance to make an apology to someone, or forgive yourself for something in the past. You'll feel instantly lighter without that lingering negative energy. 

Q & A with Stress & Anxiety Management Group Leader Dr. Nesrin Hisli Sahin

Q. How are stress and anxiety related, and what can we do to manage both?

A. Anxiety disorders are an emotional manifestation of chronic stress; and chronic stress can be defined as the accumulation of a natural energy produced by our brain whenever we are faced with an expectation, ambiguity, or the perceived possibility of a ‘life threat.’ So, it really does not matter whether we have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety or Specific Phobia, we are just talking about an ‘anxious brain’. Consequently, stress and anxiety management actually means ‘changing the workings of our brain through the use of our ‘mind’’. We know we can do this because the current scientific findings have shown that each one of us has a brain that changes itself. We just need to learn and practice how to do it.


Q & A with Teen Group Leader Joan Dawson

Q. Why are support groups great for teens?

A. Support groups are great for teens because they provide group members with an opportunity to meet others with similar issues who can understand what they are going through. It can be very empowering when teens realize that they are not alone! Group participants can talk about problems in a safe space while learning new ways to cope with their anxiety, depression, or stressful situations or relationships. There is also a tremendous amount of support and acceptance from other group members which helps teens build positive self esteem, relationships within their peer group, and movement toward self acceptance. 

Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing our Princeton area teens?

A. In my work with teens, I hear over and over again that their main stressor is related to exceeding in school so they can get into a good college. I have worked with students as young as 11 who worry about being accepted into a specific university! Schools begin discussing the importance of preparing for college very early in the education process, and as students age, this focus intensifies. The benefits of this are that teens understand the value of doing well in school, and accordingly, they work hard to learn all they can to help them succeed in life. The challenging part of this is that often times, teens put a  lot of pressure on themselves to not only do well, but also to be "perfect" with respect to grades and achievements. Perfectionism is generally not attainable because teens may set unrealistic expectations and often feel that no matter what they do, it is not good enough. Contributing to perfectionist thinking is that teens typically compare themselves with others, and oftentimes, find themselves lacking. These unhelpful thinking patterns increase anxiety, stress levels, and judgments and can lead to feelings of hopelessness, overwhelm, panic and frustration. Attending a peer support group is a great way for teens to see that others are struggling with the same issues, and to learn helpful ways to manage unhelpful thinking patterns, stress and anxiety. 

Q. With so much negative press about smart phones & social media, what are some positive ways you've seen technology help struggling teens?

A. As parents know, teens love their phones! If you are a parent, like me, sometimes it seems that your teen spends too much time on their phone, and not enough time interacting with people in their everyday lives. While this can be challenging for parents to accept and understand, it is an important part of the younger generation's culture and definitely has many benefits. Technology gives teens a lot of resources and tools that can help them to manage anxiety, stress, and a host of other challenges they are facing. Teens can access information about mental health issues, connect to others facing similar difficulties, and access stress reduction methods. Many of the teens I work with have benefitted from mindfulness practices through apps, like Headspace. Headspace provides quick daily practices geared toward different challenges, such as anxiety, depression, sleep issues, anger, restlessness, etc. Additionally, many teens have games on their phones which can be a great way to temporarily distract from overwhelming emotions. Listening to music to self soothe is another essential use of technology for teens. Through You Tube, teens can find numerous options for anxiety reducing practices such as: guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga (Fight Master Yoga is highly recommended by teens). Finally, having the ability to Snapchat with friends, find a humorous video, or check out what is trending on social media can have a positive impact on how a teen is feeling in the moment.