Play tends to decrease as a medium in adolescent psychotherapy compared to psychotherapy with younger children. Verbal communication takes up a larger part of the process. Often, we forget that teenagers are not yet adults. Relying too much on verbal communication might overcharge the teenager’s cognitive abilities. Therefore, it is advisable to also include play in your work with adolescents, adjusted to the developmental level of the adolescent. Below are some reflections on play in adolescent psychotherapy:

Number 1Adolescents are in between childhood and adulthood.

This transition is a difficult phase and adolescents switch between wanting to be considered an adult versus not wanting to lose childhood. Play can carry the tension of this non-linear transition. As play is rather connected to childhood, some adolescents might be more prone to play while others might want to ban it completely.

Number 2Be confident when introducing play elements into your therapy.

The adolescent might be uncomfortable in the beginning so it helps to find a therapist confident in using other mediums than talking. Give the adolescent room to get used to it. Normalize it. Some adolescents might be totally blocked in their playful/creative expression. Likewise with children, accept that getting adolescents into creativity and playfulness might be the result of a therapy process.

Number 3

Dare to upgrade your view of play.

Play and playfulness with adolescents can mean: humor (!), board games, language games or mind maps. Creativity with adolescents can also mean drawing a comic book, scribbling, poetry… I often make time line drawings with adolescents. Or we visualize closeness and distance to important others in their life by using dolls. Personally, I am a big fan of Dixit cards. I may give them to the adolescent and ask to take out some cards that symbolize their current emotion, their past week, the relation with their family/classmates/the therapist or how this session has been for them.

Teenage girl reading comic book
Photo by Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash

Number 4

Try to add ‘play elements’ out of their daily lives.

By asking about their favorite music, song lyrics, diaries, pictures or video games. Generally, the smartphone is wealthy medium in that respect. Of course make sure not to invade the teenager’s privacy and respect their boundaries of sharing their personal life.

Number 5

Make sure to ask the adolescent about his/her hobbies.

Sometimes, they also provide a creative channel or an important metaphor to be used in therapy.

Number 6

Try to develop a common metaphor or image that captures their difficulties, process or emotions.

Often an image captures more than words. Secondly, it can be something to elaborate on during future sessions. It can become something to hold on to.

Number 7

Do not forget the body of the adolescent.

Their body is often going through a lot of transformation. It can be a means of self-expression. Be aware of clothing and hairstyles, tattoos, piercings and make-up. Maybe these elements can create a deeper, embodied conversation too. However, their body can as well be a container of stress, anxiety, pain and destruction. Look into physical activity and meditation (in- and outside the therapy room). Explore relaxation methods with adolescents. Play Doh can be a great means for relaxing the body as well as expression.

Written by An Molenberghs.

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