Cheryl Shanahan. Photo: David Wong

Filial play therapy helps children communicate their feelings to their parents

Through playing and reading books, therapists can help parents better respond to needs that their children may have trouble expressing

Not every child can express verbally what is in his or her heart, but parents can learn a lot through playing or reading a book with their child. While parents can do this at home, Cheryl Shanahan, an early childhood therapist at the Southside Family Health Centre, says it's sometimes necessary to consult a professional if a child needs guidance in development or to overcome an obstacle.

This may involve filial play therapy, with the professional helping parents tune in to the child's social and emotional development while strengthening their relationship through play.

According to professional organisation Play Therapy Hong Kong, there are 17 certified practitioners of therapeutic play skills and six certified filial play therapists in the city.

Shanahan, who is among the six certified therapists, works primarily with children under the age of six. "My role isn't to build a relationship with the child, but to support the parent as the agent of change," she says.

Her therapy room looks like a child's dream come true. It's full of figurines, musical instruments, puppets, storybooks and art supplies - all materials to enable a child's imagination to run free. In one corner, there is a sandbox which the child can use as a stage for the toys to tell a story, or be told a story by the parent or therapist.

"Talk is not for every child, but playing is also a form of communication," says Shanahan. "A child can come here and play through anything."

Parents are asked to take a step back and let the youngsters choose what to play with and how to occupy themselves with the materials on hand - a child-led process.

The available toys mostly come in pairs, Shanahan explains, to allow the parent or therapist to reflect the actions of the child. If a child is playing a musical instrument lightly, the parent can communicate with the child by following their actions.

"So much of children's lives are already directed, child-led play is an opportunity for them to have some control," she says.

In filial play therapy, Shanahan sometimes finds it useful to have parent and child swap roles, and give the child a safe opportunity to take the reins. The child may wear a sign with lips on it to signify that only he or she can speak, and can direct the parent as they play. Or the child might be given crayons as the parent gives instructions for what to draw.

When first introduced to play therapy, Shanahan was asked to select two toys she felt most drawn to. Then asked to introduce herself with her choices, a cow and a race car, she thought hard before realising what the toys meant to her. The cow represented Canada, where she grew up in a laid-back environment, and the race car represented the more hectic and risk-taking environment of Hong Kong, where she now lives. "Toys can bring thoughts and feelings to the surface that we did not recognise before," she says.

In reading a story together with grown-ups, children may interpret the tale rather differently from what we might expect, Shanahan says.

She cites an exercise with a young girl who read , the tale of a spoon who is envious of the qualities that forks, knives and chopsticks have.

It is important to honour the unique responses that a child has
Cheryl Shanahan, early childhood therapist

While the story was meant to teach youngsters about appreciating their own unique qualities, the girl took home a different message. She compared her relationship with her mother to that of chopsticks - they like to be together but sometimes have to be apart. So the girl decided to create two pairs of chopsticks, one set for her to carry in her schoolbag and the other for her mother to carry in her handbag.

"It is important to honour the unique responses that a child has," says Shanahan. "The whole point of filial therapy is to tune into your child."

The girl was able to lead the parent and the therapist to the part of the book that was meaningful to her.

With adoptive families, for example, such non-directive exercises give children the leeway to express what they might have trouble articulating.

"For children who can take the lead in a safe space repetitively, you can see it transfer over to their daily lives," says Shanahan, who gave a seminar hosted by the Adoptive Families of Hong Kong on the use of storybooks to foster a child's social and emotional growth.

The child learns to cope with difficult emotions, build self-confidence and a positive sense of self. Shanahan says that it is important for adoptive children to form secure and healthy attachments to caregivers early in their lives, and one avenue is through playing and reading storybooks together.

For parents broaching topics such as adoption or divorce with their children, it is not always necessary to use storybooks that are directly on the issue as it can sometimes be too emotionally heavy for the child. What is important is to find a tale with characters and ideas the child can identify with, which will help build up their sense of identity.

The characters in a storybook can model the various ways of coping with problems, Shanahan says. For example, if a child is struggling with anxiety, it may be helpful for him or her to come up with ideas for how to help a book character overcome the anxiety. The children become the helper, which empowers them to come up with their own coping strategies.

Parents who have a nightly or weekly routine of playing or reading with their children can build a sense of security because the child knows what to expect. Even if parents are away, they can read a story by sending a recording or delivering it over the phone.

Children often insist on reading the same book over and over again, and Shanahan says that this is a good thing. "Repetition builds security" because the child becomes more confident as he or she gets to know the story well."


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Toy stories