“Seldom have play therapists concentrated on lower brain symptomatology of hyperarousal, affective regulation or physical modulation of impulses. These are all symptoms characteristically suggestive of low brain disorganization (brain stem and diencephalon regions) and all common autonomic symptoms of severe trauma exposure.” (van der Kolk, 2006)
Synergetic Play Therapy (2008) is a researched-informed model of play therapy based on nervous system regulation, interpersonal neurobiology, physics, attachment, mindfulness, and therapist authenticity. Its primary play therapy influences are Child-Centered, Experiential, and Gestalt theories.
Although Synergetic Play Therapy is called a model of play therapy, it’s actually a way of being in relationship with self and others. It’s an all-encompassing paradigm that can be applied to any facet of life and, subsequently, any model of play therapy can be applied to it or vice versa. Synergetic Play Therapy is both non-directive and directive in its application.
The Synergetic Play Therapist aims to replicate the delicate dance of attunement that occurs between a caregiver and an infant. Since 60% of communication is non-verbal (Burgoon, 1985), it is important that the therapist’s verbalizations and non-verbal activity are congruent during the play therapy sessions in order to transmit trust and safety to the client (Shore, 2006). In doing so, the therapist maximizes right-hemisphere to right-hemisphere communication and acts as an external regulator for the client’s dysregulated states (Shore, 1994) as they arise in the play therapy process.
The therapist is the most important toy in the playroom. Toys are used to help facilitate 1) The relationship between the child and his or her perceptions of the challenging experiences in their lives and 2) The relationship between the therapist and the child. SPT believes that the toys themselves are not as important as the energy and emotions that arise as a result of how the child is playing with them. In SPT’s truest form, toys and language are not required.
SPT posits that the therapist’s ability to engage in mindfulness and model regulation of her own nervous system is the foundation for clients to learn how to manage their own. The therapist has to lead the way, just like a caregiver has to lead the way for an infant.
The therapist must work at the edge of the window of tolerance and the regulatory boundary of the days-regulated states in themselves and in the child in order to expand those boundaries and re-pattern the disorganization in the nervous system. A core principal of SPT is the therapist’s ability to be authentic and congruent in his or her expressions, coupled with the ability to model regulation through the crescendos and decrease dos in the client’s arousal system (Shore, 2006). This allows the therapist to stay on the edge of the window of tolerance and serves as a catalyst for the re-patterning of the nervous system.
“When the relationship is experienced as safe enough, the dissociated experiences will begin to come into conscious awareness. As we resonate together, the activation will amplify and, if our window of tolerance is broad enough to contain this energy and information, our patient will also experience a widening of his or her window. In the research of Carl Marci and colleagues (Marci & Reiss, 2005), these moments of autonomic synchrony were subjectively experienced as empathetically rich interpersonal joining. This research showed that within the session, our nervous systems will flow into, out of, and back into synchrony many times. This rhythm is parallel to the dance of mother and infant as they move from attunement to rupture and back to repair over and over, laying the foundation for security, optimism, and resilience.” (Badenoch, 2006)
With repeated observation of the therapist’s willingness to stay authentic and move towards the challenging emotions and physical sensations aroused through the play, the child’s mirror neuron system is activated and the child learns that it is ok to also move towards their own challenging internal states. Research shows that as clients begin to move towards their challenging internal states, new neural connections are created until a critical state is reached that results in a new neural organization (Edelman, 2004; Tyson, 2002).
SPT is an all-encompassing paradigm that incorporates other models and expands on the therapeutic powers of play. Its roots are in Child-Centered, Experiential, Gestalt and Interpersonal Neurobiology. The focus is on being in relationship with the child, not doing something to the child. Through the play itself, the Synergetic Play Therapist supports the child in changing his perceptions of the perceived challenging events and thoughts in his life, as well as getting in touch with his or her authentic self.
In SPT, the child’s symptoms are understood as symptoms of a dys-regulated nervous system. These dys-regulated states arise as a result of 1) The perceived challenges and thoughts he or she has regarding the events in his or her life and 2) He or she has lost attachment with him or herself and is attempting to be someone they are not (acting from “shoulds”) instead of being who they truly are.
The result of Synergetic Play Therapy is that the child heals from the inside out and from the lowest part of the brain up.
The principles and concepts of Synergetic Play Therapy were birthed from extraordinary circumstances. Check out the video below as Lisa shares her personal story.
- The therapist supports the child in changing his perceptions of the perceived challenging events and thoughts in his life.
- Attunement between therapist and child is essential to heal disorganization in the lower brain stem and re-pattern their nervous system
- The therapist models self-regulation to the child, because children learn most through observation
- The therapist’s ability to use mindfulness to be congruent and authentic in her language and non-verbal signals allows the child to feel safe in the relationship and engage in reflective awareness.
- The child’s symptoms are understood as symptoms of dys-regulated states of the nervous system.
- The therapist is the most important toy in the playroom. Toys are used to help facilitate the relationship between the therapist and the child. At SPT’s essence, toys and language are not required.
- The therapist supports the child in getting with who the child truly is rather than who she thinks she “should” be.
- The synergy between the therapist’s authenticity, attunement, congruence, and nervous system regulation support the child in learning how to attach to self, the cornerstone of all healing.
- The child projects his inner world onto the toys and therapist setting them up to experience his perception of what it feels like to be him.
As a research-informed play therapy model, it is important that we stay current with the latest research on play, neuro-biology, mindfulness, etc. We are in the process of conducting our own research studies on various aspects of Synergetic Play Therapy™ particularly regarding its ability to help clinicians with compassion fatigue.
Lisa Dion and Kaylin Gray did extensive research that was published in 2004 on “The Impact of therapist Authentic Expression on Emotional Tolerance in Synergetic Play Therapy.” This appeared in the International Journal of Play Therapy. 23(1), 55-63 (see below for abstract).
International Journal of Play Therapy. 23(1), 55-63.
To date, there is little research on therapist authentic expression with children. The closest explorations of this topic are studies conducted regarding therapist self-disclosure (Capobianco & Farber, 2005; Ginsberg, 2011). No published research has directly addressed the impact of expressing present thoughts, feelings, and body sensations in response to the child client’s stories and play. With new research on neurobiology, this article explores how therapist authentic expression in play therapy might be a helpful component in expanding the clients’ emotional windows of tolerance. Literature on pertinent aspects of self-disclosure, authenticity, and windows of tolerance is reviewed. This article introduces a study exploring the impact of therapist authentic expression on expanding a child’s emotional window of tolerance in Synergetic Play Therapy. Results indicated that there was a statistically significant increase in the percentage of emotionally tolerant behaviors in response to authentic therapist expressions from the first to third play therapy sessions. Also, the entire sample displayed full integration of emotions (100% emotionally tolerant behaviors) by their fifth session. Implications of these findings and for future research are outlined. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
To purchase and read article, please click here.
“The very act of being an SPT therapist provides endless practice in congruence, authenticity, attunement, and nervous system regulation. It’s an ongoing practice, a way of being that improves my life every day.” – Jody Catlow, MA, NLC
“This experience was life changing. It not only renewed my vigor for work with children, changed my perspective of what was possible during the play therapy process, but changed the way I viewed the world and my relationship with others.” – Jessica Kimak, LCSW
“The SPT advanced class has been a truly transformative experience! Lisa and Kathy created so much safety to fully be myself as they guided my process of learning and growth. Through this class, I have been able to integrate my experience and shift perceptions, which has allowed me to be more present with my clients.” – Kim Buller, LCSW, RPT-S
“It’s more than a play therapy practice, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a belief in self, so that I can model (to myself) holistic love and acceptance from the inside out. It is the gift of life. It is being in touch with myself so that I am available for myself (and other).” – Sara Moore, MA, LPC, RPT
“Hands down, the best training I have been to. I have been to many good trainings, but really appreciated the individualized approach that was afforded by the small size. It was a rich learning experience.” – Jennifer Errington, LISW-S, RPT
“I got so much out of this intensive – a greater sense of self and deeper awarenes of my experience including bodily sensations, emotions and, most notably, how I am affected by my environment and letting that all in. It is an inspiration to be at the forefront of something amazing! I am so excited to have experienced such profound transformation in such a short amount of time and to be able to go out and share this with others. Thank you!” – Chandra Lontz-Smith, MA, LPCC
“The education, supervision and support I am receiving through my training in Synergetic Play Therapy has been phenomenal. I am coming in to myself as a therapist in new and amazing ways. And the shifts I am experiencing with my clients have been profound. To have permission to be authentic with myself and my clients is truly liberating, not just for me but for them, as well. With Lisa’s support and guidance, as well as the community of talented and mindful therapists at PTIC, I feel more confident and inspired in my work as a therapist than ever before.” – Sanam Pejuhesh, MA
SPT Training Courses
Six-Day Synergetic Play Therapy Intensives
Happening several times throughout each year, the Six-day Synergetic Play Therapy Intensive is for Masters-level therapists (or equivalent) and clinicians who want to jump in and really experience the magic of Synergetic Play Therapy. We designed the course to introduce play therapists to pertinent information on brain development, the projective process, affect attunement attachment and nervous system regulation that impacts the children in the play therapy room. Specific attention will be given to interventions that are designed to repattern the disorganization in the lower brain centers, areas that are often unaddressed in many current play therapy models.
Become a Certified Synergetic Play Therapist!
Are you ready to take your Synergetic Play Therapy skills to the next level? Are you ready to expand your understanding of interpersonal neurobiology and take your ability to help a child heal to a whole new realm of possibility? Are you ready to dive deeper into the Synergetic Play Therapy process as you learn how to embrace yourself, discover your magnificence, and tap into a higher state of authenticity? If so, we invite you to embark on an experience that will take your confidence and skill level to the next level so that you can love yourself and support your child clients in loving themselves more fully.
Online Intro To Synergetic Play Therapy
Have you ever felt lost or confused about what is happening in the playroom? Do you wonder if you are making a difference or helping the child heal in the most effective way possible? In our Online Introduction to Synergetic Play Therapy course, we’ll explore what exactly is happening in the play therapy process, how change happens, and ultimately what it takes to help children heal at profound levels. You will finish this online course understanding exactly how the “magic” happens in the playroom.