a little girl playing outside reaches for a bubble with a smile on her face, showing the power of play therapy in new jersey

Fostering Emotional Intelligence in Children Through Play Therapy & Holistic Practices

Have you noticed a recent change in your child’s behavior or that they are struggling in certain areas? Play therapy could help you discover what’s happening beneath the surface and support your child in what they are experiencing.

It isn’t easy being a child – they haven’t yet developed the skills to fully communicate with us, manage their emotions, or control their behaviors at times. As a parent or caregiver, it’s your duty to equip them with the tools to learn, but it can be hard when you’re not speaking the same language. Luckily, our child therapists know the language of play, which we use to help create meaningful change in your child and family. On its own, play supports learning and fosters emotional intelligence, and when used in a therapeutic setting, it can be the learning tool they need to be able to express themselves and their emotions effectively.

What is Play Therapy?

“Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts, and souls meet.” – Virginia Axline

Play therapy is an approach that uses play as the primary medium for helping children express and process their emotions, experiences, and challenges. It leverages the natural way children communicate and learn, providing a safe and supportive environment where they can explore their feelings and work through issues in a way that feels engaging to them.

How Play Therapy Works

Children often struggle to articulate their thoughts and emotions through words alone. Play therapy recognizes this and allows children to express themselves through toys, games, and creative activities. This method helps therapists gain insight into the child’s emotional state and underlying issues. Here’s how it works:

  1. Safe Environment: A foundational aspect of play therapy is creating a safe and nurturing environment. The space is carefully curated with an assortment of toys such as dolls, puppets, building blocks, art supplies, and sand trays, providing multiple avenues for children to express themselves. Consistent routines and clear boundaries within the play therapy sessions help children feel safe and understand what to expect, which is crucial for building trust.
  2. Building Rapport: Play therapists carefully work to build a trusted relationship with children. The therapist provides consistent support and acceptance, reinforcing the child’s sense of worth and security. By observing and verbally tracking the child’s play without placing judgment, the therapist gains valuable insights into the child’s inner world, and the child feels seen in often a completely new way.
  3. Expressing Emotions: Through play, children use toys and activities to symbolize their inner experiences. For example, a child might use a dollhouse to act out family dynamics or employ action figures to depict conflict scenarios. Activities like drawing, painting, or crafting allow children to project their emotions onto their creations, offering insight into their emotional states. Children can tell stories or assume different roles during play, which helps them process and articulate complex emotions and situations.
  4. Skill Development: Through play scenarios, children learn to navigate challenges, make decisions, and find solutions, enhancing their cognitive flexibility and problem-solving abilities. Interacting with the therapist and engaging in role-play activities improve the child’s verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Play therapy teaches children how to identify, understand, and manage their emotions. Techniques such as role-playing different outcomes help them learn how to cope with various feelings. Finally, playing cooperatively with the therapist or in group settings helps children practice social norms, empathy, and turn-taking, which are critical for healthy relationships.
  5. Collaboration with Parents and Caregivers: At Awakened Path Counseling, we believe that involving parents and caregivers in the therapeutic process is crucial for sustained progress and holistic healing. Initial communication with caregivers allows therapists to understand family dynamics, parental concerns, and environmental factors that may influence the child’s behavior. Caregivers are educated on play therapy techniques and strategies that they can implement at home, reinforcing the therapeutic work done in sessions. Ongoing communication between the therapist and caregivers ensures that strategies are being applied consistently, and parents receive support in addressing their child’s needs.

Benefits of Play Therapy for Children and Families

Play therapy supports both children and their families, addressing a wide range of emotional, behavioral, and psychological challenges. By leveraging the natural language of play, this therapeutic approach helps children express themselves, develop crucial skills, and heal from trauma or stress. It can be particularly effective for supporting:

Emotional Expression and Processing

Children learn to identify and understand their own emotions through play. This self-awareness is the first step towards emotional regulation and increased emotional intelligence. Once children gain understanding of their emotions, play therapy provides a secure environment where they can express their feelings without fear of judgment. This is particularly beneficial for those who struggle to articulate their emotions verbally.

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” – Charles Schaefer

Emotional Regulation

During play, therapists model healthy ways of expressing and managing emotions. Children practice these techniques in a supportive setting, which helps them internalize and apply them in real-life situations. Activities such as deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, and creative expression through art are incorporated into play therapy to teach children how to calm themselves when feeling overwhelmed.

Trauma and Stress Relief

For children who have experienced trauma, play therapy offers a way to process and make sense of their experiences in a safe and controlled environment. It enables children to construct narratives about their experiences, which is a crucial step in processing trauma. This narrative construction helps children make sense of their experiences and integrate them into their broader understanding of the world. By playing out different scenarios, children can explore alternative outcomes and resolutions, which can help them feel more in control and less victimized by their experiences.

Ultimately, engaging in play helps reduce stress and anxiety, providing a therapeutic release for pent-up emotions.

Behavioral Issues

Research has found that children showing behavioral signs like aggression, defiance, or withdrawal, can learn to understand and manage their behaviors more effectively through play therapy. By exploring and acting out different behaviors in a safe environment, children can experiment with and adopt more positive ways of interacting with others. Play scenarios help children understand the consequences of their actions, promoting better decision-making and self-control.

Social Skills

Play therapy improves social skills by encouraging children to interact with the therapist and, in group settings, with peers. This helps them develop better communication skills and build healthier relationships. Through role-playing and cooperative play, children learn to see things from others’ perspectives, enhancing their empathy and social understanding.

a play therapist plays watches a toddler girl play with toys on a small table in a new jersey play therapy session

Fostering Emotional Intelligence at Home

Fostering emotional intelligence in children is one of the most important parts of parenting that lays the foundation for their lifelong well-being and success. Here are some practical ways for parents to nurture emotional intelligence in their children at home:

Spend quality time with your child

Plan activities that allow for interaction and conversation, such as playing games, reading together, or taking walks in nature. Give your child your full attention when they want to talk or share something with you, and let them take the lead in your cooperative play. Listening actively shows that you value their thoughts and feelings and allowing them free expression in their play without correcting or corralling their imagination is incredibly restorative to your relationship. Establish traditions or rituals that you can enjoy together regularly, such as movie nights, cooking together, or going on weekend outings.

Establish routines and stick to them

Consistent routines provide stability, security, and predictability for children, which are essential for their emotional well-being. 

  • Set regular bedtimes and wake times. Consistent sleep schedules help regulate children’s internal clocks and promote healthy sleep habits. 
  • Establish regular meal times and sit down together as a family to eat. Mealtime routines provide opportunities for connection and conversation. 
  • Create daily routines with consistent time for activities such as homework, chores, playtime, and relaxation.

Foster empathy and compassion

It starts with you. Children model what they see, so demonstrate empathy in your interactions with others, including your child, family members, and friends. Show kindness, understanding, and consideration for others’ feelings.

Prompt your child to consider things from another person’s point of view. Ask questions like, “How do you think they feel?” or “What would you do in their situation?”

Encourage your child to perform specific acts of kindness towards others, whether it’s helping a friend in need, sharing toys, or volunteering in the community. Expose children to different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences to broaden their understanding and empathy for others.

Embrace emotional expression

Normalize feelings. Let your child know that all feelings are valid and acceptable. Encourage them to express a wide range of emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, fear, and excitement. Create a safe and non-judgmental environment where your child feels comfortable expressing their emotions. Demonstrate healthy ways to express emotions by managing your own feelings constructively. Show your child how to communicate emotions calmly, assertively, and respectfully.

Embracing Healthy Holistic Living

At Awakened Path Counseling, we integrate play therapy with a holistic approach to foster emotional intelligence in children. Our holistic therapy assesses various aspects of a child’s life, including bedtime routines, diet, environmental stressors, parenting styles, and trauma history. We believe that addressing the root causes of emotional and behavioral issues, rather than just the symptoms, leads to sustainable progress and long-term well-being.

Holistic therapy emphasizes the importance of a balanced lifestyle that nurtures the mind, body, and spirit. By promoting healthy holistic living, we help children and their families adopt practices that support overall health and emotional resilience. This can include mindfulness exercises, nutritional guidance, and creating a nurturing home environment.

At Awakened Path Counseling in New Jersey, we are committed to providing comprehensive, compassionate care that addresses the unique needs of each child and their family. Whether through in-person sessions or online therapy for children, our goal is to help your child thrive emotionally and develop the skills they need for a healthy, fulfilling life. Together, we can support your child’s journey towards emotional intelligence and holistic well-being. Contact us today.

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