One of my favorite classes in graduate school was Therapeutic Play Techniques for Child Life Specialists. I am not a play therapist, but I use therapeutic play techniques in my work as a child life specialist all the time. I also used a lot of these same techniques before I graduated, when I was working as a nanny in New York City.
Limit setting is one of the most effective and easiest techniques to use in the real world, which I learned from Garry L. Landreth’s book Play Therapy. What do you do when your children are misbehaving? Yell? Appease them? Try to divert their attention? Some of these techniques might work some of the time; sometimes they’ll make things worse. What all of these techniques are missing is making your child feel heard. Children’s actions are not arbitrary. For a child who’s ability to communicate verbally is not up to par with yours, their actions speak for them. This happens very clearly in children’s play, but can be seen through everyday behavior.
Your child grabs a toy from another child. You yell at her and tell her that taking from her friends is not nice and that she should share. Now your child feels frustrated that she doesn’t have the toy she wanted and that she was not understood.
Your child hits his brother because he fell down. You tell your son not to hit his brother. The behavior may stop, but your son does not feel any better.
A better approach to unwanted behavior includes three easy steps.
1.) Empathize with your child’s feelings.
- This helps your child feel heard and gives acceptance to her feelings. It is okay to let your child know she can feel mad without giving her permission to act on these feelings. If you don’t first express an acceptance of your child’s emotions, you might be making your child feel as if her emotions are not valid. Sometimes just empathizing with your child will satisfy her and she won’t feel the need to act on it.
2.) Set a limit.
- Limits should be very clear so that your child understands what is and is not acceptable behavior. Try to keep your language positive and directed towards the behavior, not the child.
3.) Give your child an acceptable alternative.
- In the case of the child who takes a toy from another, you could say, “you really wanted that toy, but John is playing with it right now. How about you play with this truck.” For the child hitting his brother, you could respond by saying, “you’re really mad that you fell down, but your brother is not for hitting. You can hit this pillow instead.”
If these three steps don’t work, a fourth step exists: stating a final limit. Keep the language focused on the behavior, not the child. The child should know that they are not the problem, their behavior is. If your child keeps hitting his brother, try saying, “if you choose to keep hitting your brother, you choose to leave the room.”
No child is perfect and neither are techniques in dealing with their behavior. Every parent knows their children best and can tailor their parenting style to their individual child. As always, what works best for the child is going to be what works best for the parent and family.
Landreth, G. L. 2002. Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). New York,