Play Therapy and the Grieving Process: Helping Parents Know That They are Heard

by Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

It’s natural for us to pass off resistant parents as difficult, but we must remember to put ourselves in their shoes. Play therapy wasn’t part of their parenting plan, leaving it up to us to help them through their grieving process. 

As play therapists, we realize early in our careers that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all parent; moms and dads come in all sorts of variety. On any given day, we experience this. We work with parents who are accepting, eager, and willing to roll up their sleeves to do whatever they can to maximize their child’s healing. We work with parents who are resistant or angry. We work with parents somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And, of course, we work with parents who don’t yet know how they feel; they’re so overwhelmed by the process that no adjective seems fitting.

But, regardless of how they show up, all parents have one thing in common: this wasn’t what they had planned.

We hold true to the idea that every child deserves a play therapy experience; the benefits aren’t limited to children inwardly or outwardly struggling. Yet parents don’t usually put play therapy on their list of after school activities to sign their child up for — few plan on finding themselves in a play therapist’s office. Even parents who believe in the power of therapy and, perhaps, themselves see a therapist don’t typically plan for this moment.

If you’re a parent, you can probably relate: we often have an idea of how we think parenthood will go before we ever have children. Then our sons and daughters come along and everything changes: we make a plan; life shows us something different.

Still, as unpredictable as parenthood may be, moms and dad with children in therapy battle more than what we may think: they battle grief as well.  No matter how a parent made their way to our office, they are in some stage of the grief process.  They may be in denial or mad at the world. They may be accepting or sad. They may try to bargain their way out of going.  They may be in any stage of grief, at any moment. Or they may experience a range of emotions as they come to terms with the loss of their ideal – their fantasy of what parenthood was supposed to be like and some of the dreams they held for their child shattered.

That’s one of the most important things to remember when taking on a new client (and, as a result, “taking on” their parents too): remember what it’s like for Mom and Dad.

Sure, it’s easy to love the parents who are in the acceptance stage: they make it easy by supporting our work. But for the annoyed or resistant parents, it’s up to us to open our hearts and help them through their grief process. Play therapy isn’t only about the child.

Find a way to tell the moms and dads that that are seen, they are heard, and they are understood. Those are three things everyone, parents or not, wants to experience.

Are you looking for a therapy community to call your own? Check out our new PTIC Membership site where you’ll find e-books, videos, audio, and articles, our Lessons from the Playroom series, networking opportunities, and access to monthly APT-Approved CE credits. 

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