In honor of International Play Therapy Week Safiya Tormo, LMFT shares why she uses play therapy.
During my first internship I was assigned children as my first clients. Honestly, I was unsure how therapy with kids would work. Thinking from my experience as a therapist who only had training with adults, I had many questions: Would they talk? Could they process their feelings? Could they get better? My first few sessions were rough. I thought I was asking the right questions, but they wouldn’t answer. Later, after being trauma informed, I learned it was difficult for them to talk and answer my questions because trauma does not have a language. After being introduced to play therapy and taking trainings, I was hooked. This modality made sense! I had been asking children to participate on a more adult cognitive level by asking questions, when in actuality, I had to meet them where they were. I had to communicate in a way that was natural and comfortable for them, which meant I needed to play. Even more, learning about metaphors was imperative to understanding a child’s inner world. Children often share their experiences through metaphors which allows them to safely confront the problem, without being consumed by it.
In play therapy, the toys are the words and play is the language. In the sessions following my play therapy workshops, I started speaking their language, and I learned that children had important stories to share. A year into working with children I found the answers to my questions. Yes, children communicate if you watch and really listen to their play and behavior. Yes, children have the ability to process their feelings. And yes, children get better when there is a supportive relationship in place and they’re free to express themselves without fear of judgement.
When using play therapy, I’ve seen children confront and work through a wide range of problems. I’m reminded of the child who worked up to challenging his bully and practiced standing up for himself through play. Or the child who showed me what it was like going back and forth between two homes. One moment that stands out is a child who would use the smallest figurine in the playroom to represent how small he felt at the time of a domestic violence incident. Week after week this client would use this tiny toy and show me how this toy had no power and there were always themes of helplessness. Then one session, there was a shift in his play. The tiny figurine had matured to a doll and then evolved into a superhero. This client rehearsed how it would feel to have power and practiced problem solving in session.
When the pandemic hit, I was concerned about how to utilize play therapy through zoom. One of the first clients I used telehealth with was a 5-year-old boy who was referred for hyperactive behaviors. This child did not respond to structured activities and was easily frustrated when I tried to redirect him. One day I logged on for session and he was sitting with a stuffed animal. He asked if I had any stuffed animals, I did. Our stuffed animals talked and played, and he projected his thoughts and feelings onto his “stuffy.” In htat session he told me through his play that he was scared, he missed his friends and online school was hard. I also learned that there was a way to play even through zoom.
Most people are surprised to learn that play therapy can be delivered at the office, school, park, home, or telehealth and despite the setting, it’s effective. It’s used to treat trauma, anxiety, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD), disruptive behaviors, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and parent and child relational issues. According to the Association for Play Therapy, “play therapy is an effective mental health approach, regardless of age, gender, or the nature of a problem, and works best when a parent, family member or caretaker is actively involved in the treatment process.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine not working with children. On a personal level, I feel most like myself when I’m playing, laughing, and lending a silly voice to a toy. On a professional level, I feel so honored to hold the stories that are shared with me through play. So why do I use play? Play therapy heals and it works!
Safiya Tormo, LMFT, works as a clinical therapist in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program and as a mental health consultant for Educare Head Start Program. She is especially passionate about working with children birth to five and their caregivers to address trauma and promote secure attachments. She served as the President for the Los Angeles Chapter for Play Therapy in 2022 and uses play in her work to help families connect, heal, and grow. Before joining The Guidance Center, Tormo worked with survivors of domestic violence at both an outpatient setting and residential shelter and provided parenting groups at 1736 Family Crisis Center. She also worked as a community-based therapist for Para Los Niño’s where she provided services to children living on, and around, the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles. Tormo earned a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in 2019 at California State University, Dominguez Hills.