Theraplay is a form of parent-child psychotherapy that targets children ages 0-18 who demonstrate the following behaviors: withdrawn, depressed, noncompliant, regulatory problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or attachment issues/complex trauma. Theraplay is used with both biological and foster families, for high-risk and preventive cases, and in a variety of treatment settings, including domestic violence shelters, psychiatric hospitals, and residential centers.
Drawing on a combination of theories such as attachment theory, neurodevelopmental theory, and object relations theory, the Theraplay approach is based on the following assumptions:
- The primary motivating force in human behavior is a drive toward relatedness. Personality development is interpersonal. The early interaction between parent and child provides the foundation for self and personality development.
- The caregiver’s playful, empathic, sensitive responses to the child’s needs for comfort and a secure base are essential to healthy development and secure attachment.
- The adult capacity for emotional self-regulation as well as the capacity to understand and empathize with others depends on early experiences of empathy and co-regulation between caregiver and child.
The goal of treatment is to create a secure, attuned, joyful relationship between children and their parents or primary caregivers. For example, for a child in residential treatment or in a school setting, the goal is to establish such a relationship with one special staff person. For children with autism and developmental problems, the treatment aims to address the social interaction problems associated with these challenges.
The core components of Theraplay focus on providing appropriate levels of structure, engagement, nurture, and challenge to the child, qualities which are also inherent in parent–child relationships. Through a series of 18-25 weekly sessions with four follow-up sessions at quarterly intervals over the next year, the therapist guides the parent and child through playful, fun games, and developmentally challenging and emotionally nurturing activities.
Another version of the program, Group Theraplay, is used by therapists and educators.