Filial Therapy Helps Parents and Children Connect Through Play

Happy boy riding on father's shouldersIt was 1969, and I had just received my master’s degree in clinical school psychology. Here I was, dragging my family (wife and three children) to State College, Pennsylvania, to enter a doctoral program in child development and family relationships. Unbeknownst to me, a group of clinical researchers from Rutgers University were joining the faculty. They were led by Louise F. Guerney and Bernard G. Guerney, Jr., and had just completed a major research project on filial therapy funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. I had never heard of filial therapy. However, I found myself fascinated by this new and innovative approach. It was astonishing that they proposed that parents could become therapists for their own children. In fact, their research demonstrated that parents not only learned to be play therapists for their own children but they were as effective as professionally trained therapists. In their research, the Guerneys found that parents were able to learn to acknowledge their children’s feelings, allow their children self-direction, and engage themselves in their children’s expression of emotion and behavior. In addition, symptoms were reduced; children worked out their aggressive feelings, initiated more, and engaged with parents more constructively.

Thus began my more than 40 years of passionately practicing, training, and communicating to anyone who was interested to learn about the power and flexibility of this approach.

I was drawn to this approach, which has become my world view, primarily by the values of filial therapy. First, it was a shift from a diagnostic/prescriptive (medical model) approach to an educational/skill-training one. I was struck by the respectful acknowledgement of parents as having the major influence on their children and by the idea they could be effective change agents for their own children. No matter the quality of the parent-child relationship, parents remain the primary attachment figures in their children’s lives. If they could be skillful in improving the attachment security in their relationship with their children, wouldn’t that go a long way to help their children gain mastery, be better able to cope with their feelings, and relate better with others? And wouldn’t it be possible that the effect of this is carried on well throughout their children’s development? What if parents could become more “child-centered,” paying attention first to the child’s experience (feelings) instead of their own? Wouldn’t that improve the safety and security of family relations and context for all of its members? I think so.

Consider how quickly parents become collaborators around efforts to improve their children’s development, especially if they are worried about them. It helps parents and therapists collaborate with other figures in school and community that affect their children’s lives. Over all, a context is created that fosters the best outcomes.

So parents are taught to conduct weekly child-centered play sessions, at home, with their own children. It works best if the whole family is involved. Think about it: Everyone has to schedule these play sessions in their weekly schedules. Play sessions are scheduled for the same time each and every week.  Family life is transformed.

In child-centered play therapy, parents learn to structure a context in which, except for time and a few selected limits, parents can’t initiate; they give their full and undivided attention to their child,. respond with acceptance, nonjudgment, and acknowledgment of their child’s underlying feeling motivations. In addition, parents learn to set and maintain a few necessary limits that keep the sessions safe and improve their children’s self-regulation. Through this process, the parent-child relationship is transformed into a softened, emotionally engaged, and collaborative one. With continued weekly play sessions and the therapist’s support in helping parents generalize the principles and skills in their everyday lives, most problems are changed and family life improved.

In retrospect, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn about this remarkable approach and make it part of my life’s work. Clinically, I can’t think of a better way to intervene when children are referred for therapy.

Related articles:
Playful Parents
Play is Important for Children & Their Parents
Successful Parenting: Guiding Your Child to Better Behavior

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Barry G. Ginsberg, PhD, Director of The Center of Relationship Enhancement (CORE)

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • ben f

    May 25th, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    And those of us who have benefitted from being a part of filial therapy with our own families thank you for being a pioneer in this therapy genre.

  • Mitchelle Andrews

    May 26th, 2012 at 12:51 AM

    Sometimes I wonder just how many of us are fit to be parents. There are some people, you know, who are biologically and physically fit to have kids, they have the finances to take extremely good care of their future kids but somehow they are not good PARENTS!

    What I mean to say is that some people are just better than others at parenting, at interacting and just with their conduct with their kids.

    The filial therapy mentioned here gives a good scenario. this is a form of therapy that not only helps the child overcomes issues but also involves the parents, thereby getting them involved in the treatment of their child and also bringing about a healthy parent-child relationship.I’m sure a lot of parents would delightfully take part in such a therapy if their child has a problem.But there will also be a few who just cannot do this.These are the parents that I call are not great at parenting.

    Everybody is different and while the difference in things like academics will only influence the job,pay or social status that a person has, difference in parenting skills will have a drastic effect on the child,his life and in turn his time as a parent and development of his parenting skills.

    And that is why I think it is so important for new parents-to-be to have some sort of a support program to develop their parenting skills and applying it in things like filial therapy if the need arises rather than giving up all hope and counting on just the counselor or therapist.

  • KEN

    May 26th, 2012 at 5:17 AM

    makes sense to involve the parents and in fact make them a part of the treatment. the child would be more comfortable with the parent than a new person who is a professional. and also, it develops the bond between the parents and the child so its win-win.

  • Sarah

    May 26th, 2012 at 5:44 AM

    Any time that a parent or parents can be involved in a child’s recovery and treatment plan, then I think all the better this is going to be for the entire family.

    When you are dealing with a child, you have to consider the home environment as well. What good wikk therapy for the child do if there are not supportive parents behind the scenes playing a positive and healing role as well?

    This sort of therapy has really begun to come into its own, and now more than ever I think that families and therapists alike are aware of the numerous benefits and are committed to making this a reality for the patients who do need this kind of care.

  • Jon

    May 28th, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    Too many parents discount the importance of playing with their children. Why is that? Why do we forget that playing can be fun when we become parents?

  • opal

    May 29th, 2012 at 4:10 PM

    I would have to think that this kind of therapy works best when it does not feel forced, when the parents and the children find a way to make a real connection with one another vis the play method and can begin to have a real conversation with one another with the help of the therapist as a mediator.

    If the parents are not giving 100% to this effort, or are only doing this as a way to make appeasement then it will never work.

    But if they give it a real chance and talk openly about the true benefits that filial therpay can bring to them and their family and embrace this, then I think that that could bring a far greater amount of success to the family than you would see otherwise.

  • Barry G. Ginsberg

    May 31st, 2012 at 2:06 PM

    I like everyone’s comments and appreciate the positive things that they say about Filial Therapy. All your responses raise an important concern-parents’ motivation. In my experience, once parents observe the therapist model child-centered play therapy with the target child and discuss the presenting problem in light of the play session, the problem is changed. Parents begin to understand their children differently and most of the time become enthusiastic collaborators with the therapist. I believe it’s true that not all parents will respond this way. It helps if the therapist maintains the structured and systematic approach of Filial Therapy, i.e. creating a safe context that facilitates attachment security and emotional regulation.
    Ben’s comment acknowledges the long term value of Filial Therapy. In recent years, I have seen a number of families where one of the parents had participated in Filial Therapy as a child.

  • Hunter's Mama

    November 23rd, 2017 at 3:33 AM

    I ABSOLUTELY believe in this type of therapy because I have done it with my Autistic son. We knew he had some issues at a very young age, even before he was a year old. I wasn’t in denial about it, I wanted to find out what was wrong with my child so I did eventually when he was diagnosed with ASD. In the meantime, I did a lot of studying online and any other resources I could find while we were waiting for the right therapist to see. Small town here with not many specializing in something like this back then to help us. I decided I would be his “therapy” and found many ways to help him while he thought he was playing. It was never a forced interaction and when he grew tired of it, we stopped before he had anxiety or a meltdown. We worked on this everyday for several years, even after we found a therapist. We STILL work on things he needs to know and understand at 12 yrs old with one on one time and family time showing him how to learn in a fun but structured way. There are much less meltdowns now even though he has hit puberty and it was a rough few months, but altogether, he is a different child than he once was. Nobody ever believed he could be but I never gave up on him and he is now in Gifted & Talented classes and just took the SAT earlier this month. To say I’m proud of him would be an understatement!!

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