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The conscious, congruent caregiver & the coregulating, correcting play therapist. A perfect match!

Congruent, coregulating, conscious caregiving with Play Therapist Helen Barrett - Recording

Helen Barrett is a registered play therapist, clinical social worker, counsellor and certified filial therapist with a trauma history of her own. When Helen found play therapy, she realised the positive impact it could have in affecting change in children with a language that they already know very well. Play!
Helen explains how play therapy works and offers some real life examples where trauma and abandonment result in eating disorders and the constant need for reassurance. She explains the importance of the relationship where the therapist coregulates with the child to metabolise the trauma and widen the window of tolerance. Another example of a child who has autism shows us the importance of mirroring and testing things in the playroom training ground before taking that to the everyday environment, ultimately reducing the intensity of meltdowns and transition times.
The healing comes from correcting the experience and bringing the unconscious into the conscious, integrating new memories.
Helen explains the theories that sit alongside the child led therapy and why play therapy works when CBT doesn't.
She also explains the importance of being congruent. If you are feeling anxious or angry, but pretending not to be, your child will see that and feel that something is not right, creating even more threat for the child, exacerbating even bigger emotions.
Helen suggests 15 to 20 sessions are typically required but that she will soon have a new program where the parent becomes the therapeutic facilitator (an 8 week psychoeducation program to upskill parents).
Helen wants parents to be more conscious of their own narrative and how that impacts the parent-child relationship.
A nice soothing listen in the car as you drive to or from the supermarket or school!

00:00 - Start 01:12 - All about Helen, her therapy and her story of moving on from hypervigilance 04:45 - Helen's moment of reflection 06:13 - Child centred and led play therapy is work for children 09:21 - Understand the history first 11:02 - Children recreate the difficult or traumatic experiences they are grappling with and they look to the therapist for coregulation and a corrective experience 16:38 - Play therapy is an emotions focussed intervention that suits anxious tendencies, trauma, perfectionism, anger and acting out behaviours 18:35 - We need to metabolise the trauma to move it out of the right brain so that children can create a new narrative, even if its in fantasy that narrative can integrate them 26:08 - An example with autism and transition challenges and dialling down the intensity 32:30 - Carl Rogers, Virginia Axline and Gary Landreth contributed to the therapy: the essence of which is that without relationships you cant heal, that play works, children are wise and children want to heal 35:55 - Gestalt therapy, where healing occurs in the relationship, and synergetic play therapy, which helps bring the science in and the window of tolerance, also influence Helen's work 38:48 - CBT and other talk therapy cant access the nervous system where stress is stored until play therapy and more creative experiential processes are undertaken 40:55 - Filial family therapy is where we teach caregivers to be the therapist, its psychoeducation and offers parents so much insight and a more efficient outcome 46:02 - Therapist becomes the surrogate attachment in which the therapeutic response allows the child's defences to be relaxed and healing and correcting 49:10 - Caregivers need to be congruent. Feeling one thing and pretending another can create more threat for the child 54:24 - Fifteen to twenty sessions at 45 minutes each week is typically necessary or a new 8 week live group class teaching parents to be the therapeutic facilitator at 90 minutes each week 58:19 - Growth comes from the struggles and helps us discover who we truly are. Be the conscious parent.

Congruent, coregulating, conscious caregiving with Play Therapist Helen Barrett - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing play therapy and quite a bit more! Welcome Helen.

Introduction to Helen

Helen is a registered play therapist, clinical social worker, counsellor and certified filial therapist with over 19 years experience working in the welfare sector including community, government and private practice. Helen’s area of expertise is with children under 5 with early developmental and/or complex relational trauma, anxiety or attachment disruption challenges, including children who have been adopted or in permanent care. She is a trained group facilitator in attachment based parenting programs, Circle of Security and Tuning in to Kids. She is the founder/director of her group private practice, Play Therapy Hub, a specialist play therapy clinic for children and families in the north and west part of Melbourne.

1:12 Welcome Helen. Would you like to tell us a little more about yourself and how you came to be a play therapist?

Thankyou Sonia. Thankyou for inviting me to talk about one of my loves of play therapy.

I am a play therapist, I live in Melbourne. I run a private practice

Born and raised in Melbourne to migrant parents from the Middle East. My childhood was very difficult growing up. I grew up in a chaotic, overwhelming, abusive home where both parents were suffering from untreated mental health illnesses and that was compounded from their own trauma histories. So I grew up in a very hypervigilant anxious state. I was fortunate enough to have a buffer of having grandparents who lived with me who were very unconditional in their love and very supportive. I also had inspiring teachers and mentors in my life.

So I am talking about this because a big part of me becoming a play therapist comes from my childhood and my narrative. As a result of my experiences I chose a career in social work and am very passionate about social justice, helping people to feel more empowered to heal and develop stronger mental health. I can now reflect on my family and how much I was suffering in their way of parenting me and also living life.

So I worked in in various settings in working with adults in the social sector both in Melbourne and in London.I then took on more leadership roles working in the children and the young people space. I really loved it. I really enjoyed getting to know parents and getting to know their struggles and how to make the systems better and more effective for them.

So in my early 30s I was working as a team leader for a community family agency in Melbourne and completing a Diploma in Children’s Counselling. I’d made the decision to move away from management and into clinical work. When I was 32 I came across an introduction 3 day workshop called Child Centred Play Therapy and it transformed the way I was going to view the world and my relationships with people. It changed very profoundly how I was gong to be a parent soon after that because I got to witness this modality that affected change and healing in children through a language that they know very well, that could actually have such a positive impact when they have experienced trauma or adverse experiences. It was so incredibly healing for them on an emotional level. So I never looked back from then. I went back and did my certification program and became a play therapist.

4:45 Was there a moment when you looked back that you realised that your grandparents had been doing some things for you that your parents had not been doing for you?

It came to me later in my 20s as I am embarked on more self-work and engaging in therapy and trying to unpack my early experiences and why some of those struggles had a connecting thread to some of the challenges I faced in adulthood. And it wasn’t until being able to see what were the buffers, what were the benefits, what were the things that I also gained that made me the person I was. What were they? My studies in attachment and child development that talked about how you can have a lot of adversity in your life and quite a lot of trauma, and it takes one significant person, one significant attachment, that is protective enough to buffer you.

6:13 How do you describe play therapy for others so they can understand what you do? I suspect many of us think we intuitively understand what play therapy is but in reality it’s a very precise scientific method.

Play therapy is a collective term, a therapeutic counselling method of how to be with a child rather than doing something to the child. Its focus is on understanding the child and not necessarily just focussing on the problem behaviour or stopping the behaviour. It’s really getting a sense of who is this child in front of me, what are their struggles, what are they desiring, what is getting in the way of that?

There are different forms of play therapy and the one I specialise in is child led, and its non-directive predominantly, there is still directiveness in there, and it’s called child-centred play therapy. In its broadest terms it uses play to communicate with children because play is their most natural means of self-expression. It’s an essential component of childhood.  It’s how they make sense of the world, it’s how they understand themselves, understand relationships, how they learn about how things work. When we use play as their natural expression, we also bring in our own specific skill set to facilitate that expression in the play so that they are able to play it out. As adults we use talk therapy with our full functioning brain where we can talk about our emotions our perceptions. But children, their language is through playing. They play it out, they act it out. They project their internal feelings and thoughts on to objects or into the relationship with a therapist. That gives you a sense of what it is that they are experiencing inside them. It becomes an avenue for them to use as a medium to enjoy and feel safe in. But it’s still hard work for them. It’s not easy for them as we are asking them to show us the feelings that are difficult for them to experience or the thoughts that they have about themselves. They get to release feelings of anxiety, disappointment, fear, insecurity, confusion, and they bring it to the surface for us to encourage them to deal with it and maybe learn to master it and have some more coping skills, healthier ones, or abandon those types of behaviours that aren’t really serving them, but that are protecting them.

9:21 I assume that for play therapy to be effective, you need to have an in depth understanding of the child, their personality and their history? Is that the case and what else do you need for effective therapy?

We have a process of having an initial consultation with the caregiver and parent that allows us to enquire and be curious about what is happening in the dynamic right now, what are the struggles and challenges, what is the development history and the patterns or where interruptions that would have taken place that speaks to their symptoms and behaviours.  Ultimately for us it’s about, whether we have that information at the beginning or not, it’s about us conveying a deep unconditional positive regard for the child. We are going to provide deep empathy and respect for who they are. It’s a relationship with both. We accept them for all that they are, despite whatever shadow parts they are showing us that is difficult to tolerate, because that is where the healing takes place. It’s accepting them for where they are at and working with the challenges. When we know the history that helps us to make sense of it.

11:02 How does play therapy actually work? What is the process in the body and the brain?

In play therapy, children create play that resembles the difficult or traumatic experiences they are grappling with internally. Play therapy works on the inside out so we work to build capacities in the child. Working on their ability to be more aware and understanding of their thoughts, feelings and emotions and sensations in their body. More mindfulness skills in order for hm to be able to make different choices and that’s what leads to improvement in behaviours. In order for play therapy to work we have to create the conditions necessary for them to feel safe and trusting in the relationship. When they project a lot of their feelings and experiences on to the toys, we are also understanding perhaps what they are experiencing internally in their bodies. Children find it difficult to voice I’m feeling this, I’m feeling that. It’s difficult for them to do that particularly if there has been a lot of stress growing up and their nervous system is heightened and sensitive and it doesn’t take much for them to move into a dysregulation or a stress response of fight, flight or freezing. So their way of showing us is in the play. What we understand in the play is the feelings that are evoked and the way in which they use the therapeutic toys in the playroom that serve to express a range of emotions for them.

Children also set you up to feel what it feels like for them. They set us up for an embodied experience of oh ok I can see that this play is so chaotic and messy and I’m feeling the activation in my nervous system, which is what their feeling, but they are also watching me to work out what do I do with it. There is a set of ways that we speak to that that helps them learn its ok to have these experiences and you are not going to be overcome by them. You can move through them and develop regulation skills together. You start to regulate the body and help their mind understand and they start to develop emotional literacy about feelings and emotions at the same time in the play. Its placing a corrective experience to the template that they have had. It starts to build neural pathways in the brain that support them to build their tolerance to when they encounter stress or perception of a challenge. We all have a window of tolerance to stress and we respond to something that we perceived as a challenge or a threat. We need to create awareness around what is going on. We need to create a pause or a stop to it.  That actually creates a regulatory effect on our brain or our body. It’s really working from the inside out, having to integrate all parts of ourselves through a medium that children know how to do intuitively.

Similar to learning how to drive. Parent regulating self and child!

Some parents go well the child is playing. But the child is actually working and they are using the play as a way to communicate their struggles. It’s not so easy for anyone to look into and go oh that must mean this and that must mean that, as that’s what a trained therapist does. When you experience something in one environment that’s had an association to another environment you can shift that by bringing awareness to it.

16:38 What sort of challenges are best suited to play therapy?

Play therapy is an emotional focussed intervention so it really caters to emotional or behavioural symptoms.  Whether a child is struggling with impulsivity or have low frustration intolerance, going from a zero to 10 rage. Children who view themselves in negative or unhealthy ways which impacts on their ability to develop friendships or their ability to ask for what they need. It could be children who have various levels of anxious tendencies to disorders, anxiety disorders, generalised or separation anxiety. Children who have experienced developmental trauma or early childhood experiences that would have had an impact on their early development through stress. It could also be children who experience issues around perfectionism, anger and acting out behaviours. A wide variety. A process where we focus on the emotional life of a child and how we build their internal capacities.   

18:35 Taking trauma and developmental trauma and unresolved childhood issues, can you talk us through some examples of where you have explored unresolved childhood matters with children and how that evolved over time, so that we might understand more about the process?

When we think about trauma. It can be big trauma to really small types of traumas that can leave a child or person feeling overwhelmed and alone in it. When we experience these adverse childhood experiences and they haven’t been processed or metabolised, made sense of, they get stored in our body, in our right part of our brain, where we store our memories and our emotions. We experience them when we have a trigger associated. When we use play therapy, an experiential process, that’s very right brain. It encourages and allows the child to access those emotional body memories, those sensations. They might not recall the event, especially if it took place early on in their childhood where they didn’t have the language, but they remember the feelings and experiences.

I’m thinking about a 4.5 year old girl who for the first 12 months of her life was neglected. She was placed in multiple foster care placements following that. Throughout her placements she felt helpless and dependent on carers, needing reassurance, there were overeating issues connected to her neglect, often not being fed and being left alone. She would be extremely upset when things didn’t work out or have really big emotions when she was hurt or meltdowns when minor requests were made of her. She had built behaviours that would keep her safe in moving from one placement to the next. Even with the most loving foster carers and all the conditions right to provide that, life was still hard. That was reflected in her child-care placement and at home.

When she came to see me, she was ok in separating which was a surprise to me because I thought there would be some separation there. She was very social, very friendly, very keen to want to come into the playroom. What I noticed very quickly was that a lot of what she wanted to do in the playroom was trying to please me. Lots of questioning about what I wanted to do, that we could do together. There was this sense of I’ll do what you want me to do, potentially to make sure that this relationship would stay. I want to know what do I need to do. These have been her wonderful factors to make sure that she can survive. We are designed to survive but also to protect and connect as well.

Making decisions for herself was very challenging. She would seek reassurance about whether I liked her piece of artwork that she did. She would create a little artwork for her foster carers at the end of the session and she would be panicked if she didn’t do it. If I don’t do it this relationship might not stay. This sense of real fear that if I don’t do all these things, this relationship might not stay. This fear of abandonment and rejection would play out. Over time as she was starting to experience this trust and safety in this relationship that we had, I would often reflect on what was driving some of these behaviours, so that she could become more aware of why she was doing what she was doing, and for her and I to sit in the discomfort of that and to learn how to be ok with that. Widening her window of tolerance enough for her to then be able to move away from constantly seeking reassurance from me. She finally had that felt sense of safety where she started to relax and be freer in exploring the rest of the playroom and making decisions for herself to use the toys in her way.

So there was a real shift in her being independent.and secure. Once one layer was uncovered we would then go deeper Then another layer of defence, which was her exploring that she is confused about where her home is and she doesn’t know where she belongs. That would play out in the baby dolls that she would have and they would go missing and wondering where were they, what happened to them, where are their parents. Even though she can’t remember what happened in her first 12 months or two years, she can still have a sense of things not staying the same and being quite fearful. Helping her build her narrative of what was and what is. Then what children do instinctively is they move to creating a narrative that they couldn’t meet in reality. That’s enough for them to do that in fantasy. It fulfills their need and that integrates them on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level. 

26:08 Do you have a similar examples of where you have used this with children on the spectrum or with ADHD?

We do see a lot of children with a cross range of issues and challenges.  In the adoption or permanent care space, we have children who also have, in addition to the trauma space, they can have a diagnosis of ADHD or other cross conditions. The key part is that for any of those conditions there are still emotional issues attached to it. There are still children with high levels of anxiety, or have issues around anger and regulation or having a more fragile sense of who they are. So its again about offering them a different template for them, that’s going to be very difficult for them as they are not used to being asked to be who they are, and be accepted for who they are. Because of that acceptance and normalising some of the behaviours that they display, because of that they naturally move to growth and maturity and they start to expand their world and expand their play. Typically for kids with autism, anxiety and transitions are a big part for them. Having imaginary play or things or interests restricted.

I’m thinking about a preschool child diagnosed with autism.  He had great difficulty with transitions, difficult with articulate what he needed. He needed a lot of coregulating. He needed his mother in the room to regulate. That was fine as I am a stranger and his mother is a safe attachment figure. Because the premise of child therapy is you lead, you are in control and you direct the session, that is really challenging for children and can be overwhelming. Again we go slowly and we are gentle and empathic in the way we help the child to understand why that is a struggle for them for go to the place they need to. For this little boy it took about 6 sessions to help him be in the playroom with me by himself, as well as knowing he could go in and out of the playroom to check on his Mum, as we were building on trust and safety. How to help him trust in himself that things are going to be ok, even when things are tricky. We have to do that in doses because we can’t have the child in a stressed state because no learning or safety comes from that.

We paced it so he could be in the room for longer and longer periods. He would bring his own transitional object and toys that were important to him and he wanted me to come into his world and share in the delight of what he wanted. That gave me more information about what he enjoyed and what he found challenging.  Through a lot of that mirroring he could see outside of himself what anger looked like, what confusion looked like, what happiness looked like, and he naturally started to develop those skills to be able to express a range of feelings, to articulate himself, to try new things that he hadn’t tried before. He took that playroom training ground, with testing and pushing through things that were challenging and took that out to the everyday environment.

The mother fed back to me that transitions were much easier in terms of the time it took to get out of the house or to be able to navigate from one activity to the next being shorter. The intensity of tantrums and meltdowns were less and less frequent. Tantrums and meltdowns will still occur. It reduced the intensity.

Intensity can have an impact on your ability to tolerate and be able to regulate your child because your feeling it. Your nervous system and my nervous system are talking to each other.

I’ll never forget the first time my child didn’t cry after 4 years. It’s the little things you hold on to sometimes.

32:30 Could you share your theories influence your play therapy methods?

Carl Rogers client centred therapy was developed in the 1950s. The essence of this approach is that without relationships you cant heal. It’s a process of how do we grow our internal capacity. The resources are inside us. We need to have conditions outside of us to grow.

Virginia Axline applied his work to children and used the concept of play

Then Gary Landreth expanded that concept, holding on to the thought that children are wise.

The conditions are:

1. The therapeutic relationship must be engaging, inviting and offer warmth and rapport

2.The child must be unconditionally accepted by the therapist

3. The therapeutic environment must be non-judgemental

4.The therapist must be attentive to the child’s behaviour to provide reflective behaviours for self- awareness

5. The therapist relies on the child’s ability to find solutions to their problems and the child is solely responsible for transformational choices

6. The therapist acts as the shadow allowing the child to lead

7. The therapist recognises progress is at the child’s pace

8.The only limitations are that the therapeutic process stays genuine, the child in reality, aware of their purpose and role in the therapy.

The child is looking to problem solve it. They don’t want to feel this way. They don’t want to feel stuck. Because of an underdeveloped brain, they don’t have much perspective of life so they are really stuck and helpless. They know where they need to get to. They need to have access to that.

It puts responsibility on the therapist not to lead, but to follow. As a parent, outside of play therapy I am doing a lot of leading, controlling and decision making. But in play therapy it is about the child having control. A lot of children’s control has often been taken away from them. We still have boundaries, we don’t let them do whatever they want to do at risk of safety. We have boundaries to help them anchor themselves to the world of reality and to be responsible in the relationship. But we do it in a way that respects and preserves their self-esteem.


35:55 Are there other methods that you bring into play therapy?

There are other influences in my work with child centred play therapy that speaks to Gestalt play therapy.

Gestalt therapy is the understanding that healing occurs in the here and now. That there is an importance about being authentic in the relationship, not just a you or a me, there is a we. And that the relationship is integral. We need to bring all parts of ourselves, our senses, our body, our emotions, our perceptions, to integrate them to make the whole. Gestalt is about experience in the doing, not just thinking.

Another framework is synergetic play therapy. Its guiding principle is about relationship with self and about relationship with other that allows the transformation to occur. Very heavily influenced by interpersonal biology and polyvagal theory. Its about the fact that we all have a window of tolerance which is connected to our nervous system and when we experience stress and if we perceive threats in our world we will go into a stress response that will drive our behaviours. How do we help kids understand more about whats happening internally and widen and build their window of tolerance. Critical for me to look at how do we bring the science into this. Many children’s behaviours are driven by energy and their level of arousal rather than just behaviours. Theres a reason why this is occurring. And sometimes kids aren’t in control of it. It is really underdeveloped. So how do we help them become more connected to themselves. So that they can start to use some of the coping skills to regulate.

38:48 So what about CBT, how does that map in or contrast?

CBT is the cognitive process of thinking, feeling and doing, which in many ways we bring that into the child centred play therapy as we name a lot of the experiences, whether themselves or through the play symbolically, so they get to understand more about that and a sense of learning what is going on. The fundamental difference is that the experience of trauma comes before the thinking and cognitive part of the brain is developed, the thinking part of the brain. So there is no point in talk therapy when a lot of the stress is in the body, in the nervous system, and it doesn’t have the language. Children need to engage in more experiential creative processes, because that is where the stress is stored in the right part of the brain. Especially children under the age of 11. Definitely kids from 8 to 11 can have more cognitive functioning, that capacity to have more control over their impulses, and some CBT could work. Primarily when it comes to kids from trauma more experiential creative play process is recommended.

That age when you can think beyond yourself.

 40:55 What is the process with regards to filial family therapy, where the child is accompanied by the parent or carer.

Filial family therapy is based on child centred play therapy framework. We take the principles and we teach caregivers a basic version of how to facilitate a therapeutic play session with their child for 30 minutes once a week.

It’s a psychoeducational program where we are teaching them how to engage in more reflective listening skills, how to set limits in a therapeutic way, how to offer their child choices to take responsibility for, allowing them to lead and showing more empathy and acceptance. You get to be a very different parent in that special play time as opposed to a parent in everyday parenting.

It’s a method that really helps children use the language of play. It really strengthens the bond between parent and child.  The caregiver starts to understand what is going on for their child and they get to see what is unfolding and it gives than an inside view of this is what’s happening and that shifts their attitude, shifts their perception, and they start to support their child to find ways to problem solve around the challenges they are experiencing, but also to develop some regulation skills together. It’s really about building emotional tolerance and regulation skills. Part of emotional intelligence skills.

The program typically runs for 10 weeks. Its individual. We are developing an online version and to do it as a group. Essentially a lot of it is through role playing, having them and their child come in the following week, once we have taught the skills, and they get to practice it and practice, practice it until they can do it at home. They are supported through that process. The skills that they are learning means the caregiver becomes the agent for change for the child. They get to have their toolkit where they can bring it out anytime when there are issues happening emotionally for their child. And what better way to do that within the attachment.

Typically its 10 sessions. Every therapist does it a bit differently. Its flexible. Its dependent on a few factors such as what is the parents capacity to be reflective, their ability to engage in those skills that are comfortable for them. Roughly its 10 sessions of an hour and then they move into a phase where it is coaching and supporting them where they are doing it at home.  They then get supported by the therapist to help them start strengthening and developing those therapeutic skllls and transferring them into everyday parenting as well.

Its always best when you can do things at home to keep progressing.

The thing about filial therapy in my experience, and research has backed this too, is that even though the child is seeing us for individual play therapy, or maybe its just the parent in the room and its family play therapy, changes can still occur outside. But it takes a little bit longer than when you have the parent who is the therapeutic agent facilitating the play and helping to shift the patterns and dynamics in the relationships. Because you’re working on it here and now in the relationship.

46:02 How does this overcome some of the early attachment and unconscious challenges for the child?

When we think about play therapy in the context of child and therapist, the therapist often becomes the surrogate attachment.  Whatever the dynamics or issues that are occurring in their current attachment, it comes into the playroom. The child starts to relate to you but then they are also seeing how are you going to respond. They are testing to see if you are going to be the same adult that I am used to experiencing. For a while they get to experience a very different type of attachment. That’s confronting and uncomfortable because of the defences they have built around them. They don’t want to feel hurt or experience any more pain. Once they see that actually this experience we are providing them, which is very predictable, very consistent, with the same toys in the same position, and I am the same person each week, they start to drop their defences and then they start to become more vulnerable and open up parts of themselves that they have hidden and protected. That becomes therapeutic. That becomes healing because they are correcting that experience and they will use the play and bring certain stories or narratives that speak to their attachment needs not being met and then seek to have them met.

That example of the young girl. For her, not that she could recall it, she could remember the feelings and sensations of being hungry. She would come into the room and bring the dolls and start working on the babies not being fed consistently. Over time when that was given language and processed and sat in with what was going on, she then brought in the ending that she wanted, to the child having their emotional and physical needs met. Either playing it out and having me as the caregiver or having her as the caregiver in fantasy, they have got control and they can change the scene as they want to, and that power is therapeutic, and that becomes healing bringing the unconscious stuff into the conscious, and starting integrating that and to make some new memories in that.

49:10 What about externalised behaviours like aggression or defiance? What advice do you have for families facing these challenges?

As a therapist, especially some of my studies in the nervous system and the sciences around trauma, and I say to a lot of my caregivers, we need to see behaviour as a communication, but we also need to see that their maladaptive behaviours, or the behaviours of aggression and disregulation are really forms of protection. They’ve got stuck in. It’s what they default to. Helping parents to understand the brain and what goes on in the nervous system helps them to understand what happens when you perceive a threat or a challenge and what tendencies children will go to, whatever their template is, whether its fighting and aggression or shutting down and withdrawing or internalising. If we took the view that it’s not that felt sense of safety. When we don’t feel that felt sense of safety we feel like the world and relationships aren’t safe and its threatening. So the nervous system responds and defends us. It’s difficult for the caregiver to move towards. The shouting or the name calling or the kicking or the hitting, and that is really hard to move towards and want to connect to. But its what they are needing. So its incredibly important to start building caregivers understanding and capacity about what supports regulation. What can you do in the midst of disregulation? What can you do so that your child in front of you can feel you energetically, that you are trying to regulate, not being calm, but that they can feel you and go ok I can then borrow something from my Mum or Dad or Grandparent as they are starting to down regulate. They aren’t heightened. Children will look at your face, your tone, your body language to see does this feel safe or does this not feel safe. Caregivers need to be congruent. If your feeling anxious or angry, but pretending not to be, that creates even more threat for the child. The child will see the incongruence and think something is not quite right. You’re looking like you’re not, but I’m feeling something different. That can exacerbate and increase even bigger emotions in children.

They are good lie detectors and very observant, even when you don’t realise that they are being observant and watching you and they are watching how you deal with overwhelm and different kinds of struggles. It’s a difficult thing but its not impossible. It’s a process and it takes patience and a bit of knowledge around understanding the nervous system and the brain and the why, and starting to shift our paradigm about behaviours, not just stopping behaviours, and how can we meet the needs around the behaviours. How do they address the arousal levels and the energy that is triggering this, so how do we bring them back to regulation? Its messy and its ok because that’s part of being human. Its more about the child experiencing that they can come back to the relationship, back to connection and feeling safe again, despite the big rupture that occurred.

54:24 How long and how frequent are play therapy sessions?

We have an initial parent consult of around 90 minutes, gathering lots of information about the child and the family. What the family wants to work on, what’s their goals.  Then we decide what is the best treatment recommended to start with. For individual pay therapy, its 45 minutes per session and weekly, because it’s about building the relationship and the momentum and track progress in an efficient way without interruptions ideally. The child will have weekly sessions and every four sessions or so we will meet with the caregviers for feedback and review and see how things are going outside of the session and share insights. Sometimes that’s less than every 4 sessions. It’s really dependent on what the family needs and they are part of the system and we are there to support them as well.

Because play therapy is child led and non-directive, change takes time. So we may see the changes in the playroom but it’s not being translated yet outside the playroom or its not sustaining enough, because changes have happened and then things have regressed a bit.. It takes time because the child has to form the trusting relationship first and then test that. Are you going to be the predictable person in my life no matter what?  If that’s achieved then big tick. Then they start working on whatever they perceive as the challenges in their life. They move into feeling more empowered and showing more age appropriate behaviours.

Typically we say 15 to 20 sessions, which isn’t a lot of hours in a child’s life. Don’t think about it as a number of sessions, think about it in hours. That’s going to depend on the age of the child, their emotional maturity, the family stability, the severity of the trauma or the experiences that they had. So it could be less or more than 15-20. Typically that’s the average.

Anything online?

We are doing a few things online. A few parenting programs online. The filial therapy we are putting together to make it online as a live group program. That’s in the pipeline. We are looking at 8 weeks for 1.5 hours for families of children aged 2-10. We are looking to put that together and promote that.  It’s a resource that we would love to share far and wide.

58:19 Is there anything else we need to know or that you would like to share?

The parents and caregivers that we see, especially from permanent care and adopted families, are doing their best. Often we hear it’s not about getting it perfect, it’s about good enough parenting. The healing is in the rupturing and the repairing of the relationship. That’s what makes you this person. You don’t grow from when things are all lovely and dandy, you grow from the struggles and the difficulties where you discover who you are, who you are meant to be. That’s the beauty of an emotion focussed type therapy that we provide. 

The thing I’m most passionate about is helping parents and caregivers to become more aware and more conscious of why they do what they do and what gets in the way of the actual relationship with their child. It happens with everybody. We all have our stories and our narrative and our triggers. What better way to model to our children that we don’t get it right, that we are struggling but we are learning and that is perfectly ok. It is about that conscious parenting, just being able to see is there anything in my past getting in the way of me having the relationship I want with my child or for me to enjoy my child’s childhood.

You are offering insight into the parent as much as you are into the child. Teaching us about ourselves also. Emotional intelligence is important for a very fulfilling life.


To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.

Until next time have an amazing week.



The Play Therapy Hub – Helen Barrett

Australian Play Therapy Association Play

How to do play therapy: Youtube

Giving traumatised kids a head start in healing Youtube

Trauma & Play Therapy: Holding Hard Stories (Nurture House)

Gestalt Principles 

Dyadic Therapy

Virginia Axline

Release Therapy