Risë VanFleet

Strengthening parent-child relationships through play: Filial Therapy


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[Parts of this section are adapted from VanFleet, 1998, A Parent’s Guide to Filial Therapy.  Printed in VandeCreek, Knapp, & Jackson (Eds.), Innovations in Clinical Practice:  A Source Book (vol. 16).  Sarasota, FL:  Professional Resource Press, PO Box 15560, Sarasota, FL 34277.]

More and more, people are realizing the power of play and humor in promoting positive relationships and mental health.  The family that makes time to play together is likely to be stronger and happier!  There is a family intervention that is designed to strengthen families through the use of play.  It is called filial therapy, and it can be used by families who have few or no real problems but who wish to strengthen their relationships, or it can be used by therapists working with families who are experiencing difficulties.  In filial therapy the parents are true partners with the therapist in bringing about positive changes in their family’s life. 

In many types of play therapy, the therapist holds play sessions directly with the child and meets with the parents separately to discuss other issues.  In filial therapy, under the therapist’s guidance, the parents learn to conduct a special type of play session with their own children.  The parents are considered true partners in the entire therapeutic process.  There are several advantages to parents being the ones to conduct the play sessions with their own children: 

• Parents have an intimate relationship with their children and already know their children better than a therapist would.
• Parents are very capable of learning to conduct these special play sessions.
• Parents are the most important people in their children’s lives.  This method of strengthening the family capitalizes on this fact, and children need not develop a whole new relationship with a therapist.
• When parents are involved in play therapy as they are in filial therapy, the changes are usually positive and long-lasting.
• When involved in filial therapy, parents usually learn how to understand their children better through their play.  This understanding can help parents as they make childrearing decisions. 

Filial therapy strengthens the parent-child relationship directly, and everyone in the family benefits.
Usually children and parents alike really enjoy their special play sessions together, and using play to help children with their feelings and problems can make the change process easier for everyone. 

This approach is more efficient.  As parents learn to do this, they can eventually hold these play sessions at home.  The therapist teaches and guides the parents, but eventually they hold these play sessions independently, ultimately reducing the number of therapy sessions needed. 

This type of family-oriented play therapy is relatively short-term, but it does require some commitment and work on the part of the parents.  Most parents report that this effort is well-worth-it in terms of the positive outcomes they’ve experienced. 

Filial therapy has been around quite awhile–since the early 60s, in fact, when Drs. Bernard & Louise Guerney developed it–but it has really been growing in popularity among parents and therapists during recent years.  The primary reason for this is that it works.  There has been a great deal of research and clinical experience with filial therapy done over the past 40 years, and those studies show that it consistently helps reduce children’s problem behaviors, helps parents feel less stressed and more confident, and improves the understanding parents have for their children. (The term “filial therapy” comes from the Latin words meaning “son” or “daughter” and essentially refers to the parent-child relationship.)

This educationally-oriented approach to strengthening parent-child relationships truly empowers families.  If you have questions about it, just ask your therapist or e-mail us! 

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