About Filial Therapy by Nina Rye


© 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. Nina Rye, Filial Therapist, Filial Therapy SupervisorIt is suitable for children between the ages of 3 and 11 or 12 years old.


Most play therapists in the UK practise some form of child-centred play therapy.  One of these is called Non-Directive Play Therapy[1].  Filial therapy is a closely related form of child-centred play therapy that involves the parents or carers[2] directly as the agents of therapeutic change.  


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 the UK several times since 2002 to train qualified play therapists in the Filial therapy method.


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:


  • Understand their own feelings better
  • Become able to express their feelings more appropriately
  • Be more able to tell parents what they need, what is worrying them
  • Become more confident and skilled in solving problems as well as asking for help when they need it
  • Reduce their problem behaviours
  • Feel more secure and trust their parents more
  • Have a more healthy self esteem and increase their self-confidence.


Filial therapy can help parents to:


  • Understand their child’s worries and other feelings more fully
  • Learn new skills for encouraging co-operation from their children
  • Enjoy playing with their children and giving them positive attention
  • Increase their listening skills and develop open communication with their children
  • Develop self confidence as parents
  • Become more able to trust their children
  • Deal in new ways with frustrations in family life


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:


  • Structuring skills.
  • Empathic skills.
  • Imaginative play skills (child-centred, non-directive)
  • Limit setting skills


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 Louise Guerney.   In the USA, Risё VanFleet, Garry Landreth and Sue Bratton[3] have all developed models of Filial therapy and continue to practice and research it. Filial therapy has been extensively researched in the last 40-45 years.  It has been shown to help a wide range of families.  Research also indicates that progress in family and child functioning tends to last rather than tail off after the therapist’s involvement ends.


What kinds of families can be helped by Filial therapy?  Families of many kinds have been helped by Filial therapy, including single parent families, blended families, foster families and adoptive families. 


What kinds of problem can Filial therapy help with?  Filial therapy can be used as a treatment for a range of children’s problems, e.g. internalising, externalising, somatic difficulties, and self-regulation difficulties.  Filial therapy can also be used as a treatment for parent/child relationship problems.


Can Filial therapy be used in prevention or early intervention?  Filial therapy can be used to enhance parent-child and carer-child relationships in a number of circumstances, e.g. Looked After children (children “in Care”), adoption,

separation and divorce situations, and families with special needs.




·        Risё VanFleet’s site Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center

·        British Association of Play Therapists

·        Peer Relationships in Children

·        Face-to-Face Counselling

·        Dial A Counsellor: Telephone Counselling

·        Worldwide Counsellor Supervision via Skype

·        Secure, Automatic, Free Backup for your Sensitive Data.

·        Secure Redirect Numbers for Individuals and Businesses.




[1] Non-Directive Play Therapy was formerly taught at the University of York (course no longer available), Course Director Dr Virginia Ryan.  Virginia Ryan has also co-authored two books and written a number of academic papers on Non-Directive Play Therapy.

[2] Filial therapy can be used by carers who are not the child’s natural parents (foster carers, for example) and even adapted for teachers (called “Kinder therapy” in the USA).  Here the word “parent” will be used to cover all adults who might engage in Filial therapy with a child.

[3] The therapists mentioned here have all published books and academic papers on play therapy and Filial therapy.


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