On Becoming Eclectic: Adding Skills in Child Therapy

She Always Gets Along With ChildrenIn 20/20 hindsight, I wish I had chosen a few courses in child therapy during my graduate program in family therapy. In accordance with the theoretical basis I use for my work (Adlerian and Family Systems), I believe it important to include children in family work. I’ve therefore added competencies in child work to my theoretical understanding of families and to my repertoire of techniques.

Although children are astute observers, they are often terrible interpreters of what is going on in a family. Including their observations during family treatment can help clear up their misunderstandings. It also helps the adults understand the impact of the current situation on their kids and can motivate them to make changes.

From my point of view, it is important to do whatever we can to directly support parents in healing the relationship with their children as well as with each other.

If you wish to add the option of seeing children to your work, I hope the following ideas will help you think about how to do so.

First and foremost: Investigate the type of child therapy that is consistent with your theoretical base. Play or child therapy, like most therapies, has many variations that are well-developed and well-researched from which to make a choice.

I was drawn to training in the Filial Therapy method developed in the 1960s by Bernard and Louise Gurney because it fits so well with Adlerian and Family Systems principles. In Filial Therapy, the parent is present in every session and is an active participant in any work with children. (For more information, see this website.

Once you’ve identified the method, it’s, of course, important to get the necessary training. Talking and playing with children productively requires exquisite patience, a shift in vocabulary and pace and a repertoire of techniques in encouragement and limit setting.

Talking with young adolescents requires even more finesse. In-service opportunities are offered regularly through professional organizations and agencies and there are many fine accredited graduate programs throughout the United States.

The APA has a program online as well.

Regular consultation with a senior child therapist is invaluable as you learn and refine your skills. I was very fortunate to find a mentor who provided on-going theoretical instruction and who introduced me to a variety of Filial Therapy techniques to match the needs of different families.

Choosing Toys and Materials

Often children who cannot talk out their issues will play them out, so most child therapy approaches include the use of toys and expressive materials. Obtaining such play materials is an investment but it doesn’t have to be a huge one. I include a list here to give you an idea of what you will need to purchase to get started.

Toys from the following categories are to help children communicate their troubles and to encourage problem-solving. Some toys will fit more than one category.

  • Aggression (fierce dinosaur figures, monster puppet, toy weapons)
  • Regression (baby bottle, blanket, teddy bear)
  • Nurturance (baby dolls, doctor kit)
  • Mastery (building toys, art supplies)

Specifically, the following “basics” are enough. You can add more items as you develop your own style.

  • Sets of family dolls (white, black and brown)
  • Puppets: including at least one with a big mouth and teeth
  • A couple of baby dolls (with a removable diaper, clothes and a bottle)
  • A baby bottle
  • A small soft blanket
  • A couple of soft stuffed animals
  • Doctor kit
  • Toy telephones (old fashioned and cell)
  • Small toys for fantasy play (small cars and trucks, superhero figures, toy soldiers, dinosaurs, animals, monsters)
  • A half-dozen colorful scarves. Kids use these to improvise costumes, a baby blanket, a shelter, etc. Sometimes they use them to toss or for dancing.
  • Rubber knife
  • Toy gun
  • Rubber carpenter tools
  • Some play dishes and play food
  • Art supplies: paper, crayons, markers, clay, blunt scissors
  • A couple of board games (Shutes and Ladders and Checkers, for example) and a deck of cards (These provide a low key way to start to relate to a child who isn’t ready to talk about their issues).

As I became more comfortable with actively folding children into my family work, I found it helpful to add:

  • A dollhouse and furniture
  • A dollhouse-size castle with figures (knights, king and queen and children, dragons, trolls, horses, etc.) This one is a personal favorite. Older kids who wouldn’t dream of playing with a dollhouse often gravitate immediately to the castle and start to do fantasy play.
  • A box of dress-up clothes (I don’t include hats, as tempting as they are, because of a possibility of head lice.)

 Expressive Techniques

Most young children are immediately drawn to the toys. But, some would rather draw or color as a way to share their memories and worries. Some will engage you and family members in role playing, telling the adults what part they want each person to play.

Sometimes, older children reject toys as too “babyish” and find it easier to write or recite a “letter” or make up a story as a way to manage their histories and their concerns. Coloring together in one of the adult coloring books currently on the market takes the focus off the child and allows for conversation. Some older children and young teens will engage through guided imagery and meditation.

On Becoming Eclectic

 Becoming thoughtfully eclectic requires that each piece we add fits our overarching theory. Because my work has primarily been with families, I found it important to add an approach to working with children that is consistent with a systemic point of view. By playing with a child and by supplying a supportive narrative, I can help a child and his or her family move from trauma to creative mastery. By coaching parents, I can help deepen and/or heal the parent-child relationship.



On Becoming Eclectic: Adding Skills in Child Therapy

Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. is an author, licensed psychologist, and a marriage and family therapist who has been in practice for more than 35 years. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central and one of the therapists who answer questions at Ask the Therapist.


APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2016). On Becoming Eclectic: Adding Skills in Child Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Dec 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Dec 2016
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