© Nina Rye 2005-2008
Introduction to Filial Therapy
Play therapy has been used successfully to help troubled children since the 1940s. Filial therapy is a special kind of play therapy. It is suitable for children between the ages of 3 and 11 or 12 years old.
play therapists in the
In traditional Non-Directive Play Therapy, the trained play therapist meets with parents or carers first and then works on his/her own with the child for a number of weeks or months. Every six weeks or so the play therapist meets with the parents to give feedback and discuss the child’s needs and progress. But the parents do not normally see what happens in play therapy sessions; these are private to the child. Of course the child is free to tell the parent all about their play therapy if they choose to, but the therapist focuses on themes and meanings rather than details. In Filial therapy, the parent is present in every session and normally conducts the whole session themselves.
Filial therapy was developed in the 1960s
by Bernard and Louise Gurney. Since then
literally thousands of families have been helped by this method. Risё VanFleet has visited
Filial Therapy usually takes 3-6 months to complete, and may last longer with follow-up sessions. Filial therapy is a very flexible model: providing that the essentials are taught to parents and followed through, it can be delivered and adapted in various ways to meet the circumstances. For instance, parents may attend a Filial therapy group (usually a minimum of 10 weeks) or be offered an individual Filial therapy intervention.
After the initial assessment of the family, the therapist spends two or three weeks training the parents in the basic Filial skills. Parents get to practise the skills several times before they hold the first play session with their child. Thereafter a parent will hold a 30-minute Filial session with their child every week at the same time, on the same day, and in the same place. Wherever possible, the therapist will watch the session and afterward (while the child is looked after by another adult) parent and therapist talk through what happened, looking for all the positive points and highlighting maybe one or two difficulties or questions. (In the group format for Filial therapy the therapist rarely watches sessions, but parents use video, audiotape or notes made immediately afterward as a basis for discussion at the next group meeting.)
Parents continue to hold a weekly 30-minute Filial session with their child for as long as necessary or as long as the child wants to. Many children enjoy their sessions so much that they choose to continue for many months! Parents also find that the time spent together in Filial play is so valuable and special that they are happy to do this. The therapist initially meets with parents once a week, but later this will change to fortnightly or monthly meetings, followed by a final “check up” after perhaps three or more months.
Filial Therapy helps children and families
Filial therapy can help children to express their feelings and fears through the natural activity of play. Over time, children may:
Filial therapy can help parents to:
Filial therapy can help parents and children to form closer and happier relationships.
Frequently asked questions
My child has some serious problems. How can play help? Play is a child’s natural way to explore their world. Children also use play to find solutions to problems. Play can be healing. Children’s thoughts and emotions come to the surface during play. You can often find out more about how a child views the world by watching and joining in their play than you can by asking them to tell you what is wrong, or asking why they did something.
My child doesn’t play; he just likes his computer games. Wouldn’t another form of therapy be better? The therapist will discuss this with you and conduct a thorough assessment. One way to do this is to have a Family Play Observation, where the therapist watches you and your child (plus brothers and sisters where appropriate) spend time together in a play room. The therapist will then discuss this with you. Usually the therapist can point out how both parent and child showed naturally that they might benefit from Filial therapy. Parents are sometimes surprised by their child’s response to 15-20 minutes of attention in a play room!
If play is so natural, wouldn’t it be enough for me to go ahead and have play sessions without going to a Filial therapist for training? It would indeed almost certainly help your child and improve your relationship if you had regular weekly “play appointments” with your child. It can be a wonderful way to have positive times together. However, if your child continues to have problems, either at home or school, then it may be that you could both benefit from the special play that takes place in Filial play sessions.
What is special about the play in Filial play sessions? There are many special things. One of the most important is that the parent focuses exclusively on the child without interruption for 30 minutes. The second is that the child gets to lead the play, not you. The third is that the parent puts the child’s feelings, thoughts and even actions into words, without questioning, teaching or praising! Most parents find this very strange at first. Perhaps the fourth most important thing is that the parent learns a simple method to set limits on the child’s behaviour. Parents practice these skills in mock play sessions during training with the therapist.
What does “setting limits” mean? In Filial sessions, a child can do almost anything s/he wants to, but if there is anything s/he may not do, then you as the parent “set the limit”. For example, as you will want to prevent either yourself or the child getting hurt, and will want to prevent damage to property. So you might say something like, “Brian, one of the things you may not do in here is to throw toys at the window.” This is the first step of “setting a limit”. As it avoids the trigger words “no” and “don’t”, children more often take notice. But if the child tries it again, you would remind him/her of the limit and give a warning: “ Brian, remember one of the things you may not do is to throw toys at the window. If you do that again, we will have to leave the play session straight away.” If the child tries a third time then you end the session, just like you said, pointing out that this was the consequence of child’s choice: “Brian, remember I said that if you do that again we have to leave the session? Well, as you chose to do that we have to leave, right now.” This is a very effective method for a child to learn to be responsible for his/her own actions: most children love their Filial play sessions and do not want to leave. When they realize that the parents mean what they say then they stop and think, and change their behaviour.
What would a child do in his or her Filial play sessions? During a session a child is allowed to choose how to spend the time. S/he might play alone, play with you, or not play at all. S/he might talk a lot or remain silent. The parent accepts all feelings and any behaviour unless there is a need for a limit (see above).
What does the parent do? First, the parent receives full training from the therapist . Then the parent begins the weekly 30-minute play sessions with the child and receives support from the therapist throughout. During the sessions themselves a parent will use their newly acquired and refined Filial skills (see below).
How long are the sessions? Training sessions for parents vary in length but are usually at least an hour. Filial play sessions between parent and child are usually 30 minutes. A play session is followed up by a discussion between the therapist and parent.
What does the Filial therapist do? The therapist trains the parent(s) over a number of weeks, and then supervises the weekly Filial play sessions between parent and child. The first few sessions may take place in the therapist’s play room. When parent and child are ready they have Filial play sessions at home without the therapist. Parent and therapist continue to meet for feedback and training.
What does the parent learn? Parents learn special skills for the play sessions. Later on the therapist and parent discuss how some of these might transfer to daily life. The main skills are:
What about the other children in the family? Ideally, every child in the family will have either a Filial play session or a “special time” with one parent once a week. Sometimes parents can start weekly Filial sessions with all their children (on an individual basis). For some families this is not possible e.g. a single parent; several children; some children below 3 or above 12 year old. The therapist discusses these issues with parents.
Is Filial therapy new? Filial therapy was developed in the 1960s by therapists Bernard and