Why Filial Therapy?

Why Filial Therapy?*

by Barbara Tantrum

Filial therapy is a specific type of play therapy that one parent at a time can do with their child. It’s a specific play time in which the child leads and the parent follows, and the parent describes the child’s actions to them. This can feel very basic and somewhat silly to parents sometimes, but the results from filial therapy can be quite dramatic. So, I wanted to write up a few reasons as to why filial therapy really is the best option for a young traumatized child.

Traumatized children need to experience having a sense of power. When a person experiences trauma as a child, they tend to crave power. Children who are raised with the belief that the world is safe and that they are loved do not feel like they need to grasp power from adults, but kids who learn very young that they cannot depend on the adults in their lives try to take power to keep themselves safe. In filial therapy the child is given power with as few limits as possible for safety, and this helps address this need. Children understand that it is within the bounds of this special play time, and generally really look forward to having this time that they’re “in charge.”

Filial therapy encourages a different kind of interaction between parent and child. At first it can often feel awkward to parents to play with their child without asking questions, trying to teach concepts, or any of the myriad of interactions parents often have with their kids. In filial therapy instead of setting the tone, parents follow their child’s lead in interacting. This usually feels very safe for kids, and they are better able to communicate.

Play is a child’s language. Kids younger than 8 or so have a very hard time expressing complex emotions, history, and struggles with words. Even the most verbal children express ideas better through play, and often children will re-enact trauma, conflicts, and fears through play. 

It encourages the parent child bond. For kids with breaks in attachment in their childhood, attachment to their new caregiver can sometimes have some challenges. For this reason, as therapists we want the child to attach to the parent rather than to us. In traditional therapy, attaching to the therapist is necessary to form a therapeutic alliance. With filial therapy, though the child often likes the therapist, it encourages attachment to the parent rather than the therapist.

Parents learn to interpret their child’s language. After a filial play session, I always ask the parent, “What did you see? What did you feel?” This is critical that parents see behavior and play and begin to understand that behavior and play communicate.

It works. Studies have shown that just 30 minutes a week of filial therapy can make a big difference to the traumatized brain.

I have seen great results with families that I work with with filial therapy. I have seen kids heal, parents learn better how to communicate, and attachments strengthened through play therapy. Yes, it can feel awkward and silly. Yes, you are paying a therapist to be with you as you play with your own child. But if you can relax, engage the process, and enjoy yourself and your time with your child, then it could be just what the two of you need.

*Please do not take this, or any, article in place of therapy for your child. A trained and experienced therapist is a critical piece to helping filial therapy work. There is no substitute for in-person therapy with a trained therapist.

More reading: Karen Pernet, LCSW (May/June 2012). Not a Real Boy: Filial Therapy, Adoption, and Attachment Trauma. The Therapist