Child-Centered Play Therapy Helps School-Age Refugees

There are many refugees living in the United States. Refugees are people who have fled their country of origin because they were persecuted or due to humanitarian reasons. The number of refugee children living in America is unknown, but many of these individuals suffer with significant posttraumatic stress (PTSD) due to exposure to violent acts, death or loss of family members, loss of home, unfamiliar surroundings, and other events. Because refugees have limited resources, both socially and financially, the majority of traumatized refugee children do not receive the mental health care they need. These children can struggle for decades with the stress that accompanies the traumas they experienced, and the added strain of having to assimilate to a new culture can severely impact their social, cognitive, and academic development and hinder their ability to forge healthy relationships. The most commonly used approach for treating children with PTSD is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), and it has been shown to be highly effective in diminishing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Another form of treatment that is often used for traumatized children is child-centered play therapy (CCPT). In a recent study, April A. Schottelkorb of the Department of Education at Boise State University compared the effectiveness of CCPT to TF-CBT in a sample of 31 refugee children with PTSD. Both approaches encourage the involvement of a parent during treatment, but Schottelkorb and her colleagues were only able to achieve minimal parental involvement throughout their study. However, despite this fact, the results showed the CCPT was as effective as TF-CBT in helping the refugee children cope with their PTSD. Similar to findings demonstrated with sexually abused children, the CCPT method helped significantly reduce the symptoms of stress, fear, and anxiety in the children. Schottelkorb believes these results help clinicians and educators who work directly with traumatized refugees, become aware of the multiple options available for treating these fragile children. She added, “We encourage elementary school counselors, school-based mental health practitioners, and community practitioners who work with refugees to consider utilizing CCPT with their refugee clients.”

Schottelkorb, A. A., Doumas, D. M., & Garcia, R. (2012). Treatment for childhood refugee trauma: A randomized, controlled trial. International Journal of Play Therapy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027430

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  • Gloria

    March 30th, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    These poor families, having to not only leave their homes but also adjust to life in either another city or country. How confusing and scary all at the same time! They may not know the language, the culture, and with having no material means to even try to be like the others and fit in, they must have this pervasive sense of loneliness and feeling like they are on the outside looking in. Play therapy could be a great way to get them to open up when emotionally some of the probably feel so stunned and frozen inside that it is difficult for them to express the feelings that they are having. I am so glad that there are steps being made in the forward direction in the area of therapy for children. I think that for too many years we overlooked the devlopment and treatment of children because we all just thought that they are resilient and will always be able to bounce back from anything. But this is not always true, they need guidance just loike any of us would. And this could be a wonderful way to reach those who are having the most stressful time.

  • Georgia

    March 31st, 2012 at 12:56 AM

    More treatment options are always better and exploration in this regard is always welcome.One form of treatment may or may not work for a child but having multiple options is always an added advantage.

  • claude d

    March 31st, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    Yes encourage them to use this treatment IF they know what they should look for. Don’t force these children to talk until they are ready. I am sure that many of them harbor secrets too frightening to tell.

  • savannah

    April 1st, 2012 at 4:51 AM

    so sad that there was so little parental involvement. . . do you think that they are scared of saying something that would get them sent back to some horrible situation?. . . i thought a lot about this and maybe that’s it or maybe they are intimidated and feel like they could be pf little help in the recovery process so they instead choose to bow out. . . but these children need hands on and loving people in their lives, not those who are willing to let them just go it alone

  • Karl

    April 2nd, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    What kind of parent would not want to be involved in their child’s treatment?

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