Rules for Parents during Play Time: A Case for Filial Play Therapy

Rules for Parents during Play Time: A Case for Filial Play Therapy


Brittney S. George, M.A.

The Association for Play Therapy recently celebrated its annual International Play Therapy Week. A time used to educate and advocate on both local and global scales, the APT took care to put out videos, hold trainings, and fill various social media outlets about the often overlooked evidence-based practice. It is a pivotal time in the association’s history, considering it will commemorate its 35th year as an organization this year (

An essential concept of Play Therapy is its collaborative nature; both with the children serviced and the caregiver/parental figures. Play Therapy seeks to assist and educate parents in the areas of limit setting, emotion regulation, establishing healthy attachment, and with any other presenting problems with which the child struggles.

There are already specific sects of play therapy dedicated to the integration of psychoeducation for parents and play. For example, Garry Landreth, Ed.D., LPC, RPT-S, a well-known contributor to the mental health field, established the Child Parent Relationship Therapy model (CPRT) (Landreth, 2012). This is considered a type of Filial Therapy, where the therapist trains the parent to use child-centered play therapy techniques with their own children within the home setting. This can be especially empowering for parents who often bring their child to the therapist struggling with feelings of detachment, as well as burn out related to the child’s presenting problem.

The therapist guides the parent by teaching special skills, such as empathetic listening, healthy communication, and limit setting (Van Fleet, 1994). If successful, the parents can learn to better understand their children, establish greater empathy, and foster safety and healthy attachment within the parent-child relationship (Van Fleet, 1994). Additional benefits for Filial Therapy modalities include an increase of trust and confidence between child to parent, as well as decreased frustration in families (Van Fleet, 1994).

Often, parents may feel judged or misunderstood by mental health workers when it comes to their established parenting styles and personal philosophies. However, someone who is trained in these modalities are better equipped to work to maintain a nonthreatening environment for the parents to be educated (Van Fleet, 1994).

One particular play therapy blog, Growing Play, was one of the first to discuss the following four rules for parents to remember when engaging in play time with their child:

  1. Turn off all cell phones.

One of the goals of Filial Therapy is for the child to be heard and understood by their parents (Van Fleet, 1994). Daniel Goleman, author of the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, believed that rapport between two people – particularly child and parent – involves a shared focus and requires joint attention. He adds that a powerful synchrony occurs when the child and parent/adult are fully engaged with other, which generates a good feeling and fosters a better learning environment for the child (Goleman, 2013). A parent focused on their cell phone, rather than their child, cannot fully engage. Therefore, the child will struggle to maintain their self-confidence or learn to fully trust their parent.

  1. Follow the child’s lead.

Simply, this involves allowing the child to decide the structure and materials involved in play time. Much of their lives are controlled or guided by the parents, so it will feel natural for both child and parent for the parent to take the lead. However, a parent choosing the follow – without criticizing or judging – sends a powerful message to the child that their feelings matter. It encourages the use of increased creativity in the mind of the child, as well as the child taking responsibility for themselves.

  1. Play at the child’s level.

Similar to the second rule, placing the child at the center of the play creates a safe environment for the child. Getting on the child’s level may involve the parent engaging with the child at their eye level. For example, if the child wants to play with their matchbox cars on the floor, then the parent will join them in play on the floor. This sends an important message to the child that, when appropriate, everyone can be a leader.

  1. Do not have a plan.

It is a synonymous belief in mental health that modeling is an essential component of parenting (Heffner, 2014).  Modeling is defined as presenting healthy behaviors that you would like for the child to adopt, which is unlike the usual “do as I say, not as I do” mantra often used by parents (Heffner, 2014). Engaging improvisational play models for the child that there is space to think outside of the box, be spontaneous, and not stick to a routine or a schedule. Often parents find it difficult to veer away from a schedule, but it is important for the child’s development that they have this be a regular part of their childhood. Aforementioned play guru, Garry Landreth (2012) purports that this type of play helps the child learn self-control and self-direction. A child’s play is, by nature, spontaneous. Therefore, when a parent encourages this environment for the child, their play can develop on its own terms.

It is exciting to note that various types of mental health providers across the globe are using play therapy interventions in sessions. From individual lay counselors, school-based counselors, to larger community services boards, there is a growing interest in mental health workers to engage in research, receive and give trainings, and implement play therapy into their list of regularly used modalities.

If you would like to know more about Play Therapy, please visit the Association for Play Therapy’s website:


Association for Play Therapy (2017). Association for Play Therapy: About APT. Retrieved at

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Heffner, C. (2014). Successful Parenting Skills that Shape Children’s Behaviors. Retrieved at

Landreth, G. (2012). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. New York: NY: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Van Fleet, R. (1994). Filial Therapy: Strengthening Parent-Child Relationships through Play. Sarastosa, Florida: Professional Resource Press.

Your Therapy Source, Inc. (2017). Growing Play: Rules for Adults during Play Time. Retrieved from

Brittney George, M.A., is an outpatient therapist for her area’s community services board, working daily to help bring healing and empowerment to children, teenagers, and their families. Having a wide range of experience with people of the entire life span, Brittney is well known among her friends, family, and colleagues as an avid play therapy enthusiast and desires to obtain her Registered Play Therapy credential after achieving state licensure this year. She is married to her college sweetheart, Nick, and they have two beautiful kids, Naomi and Noah. Brittney works (and plays) in the heart of Central VA.