Academic journal article TCA Journal

Expressive Arts in Family Therapy: Including Young Children in the Process Stephen A. Armstrong and Chris S. Simpson

Academic journal article TCA Journal

Expressive Arts in Family Therapy: Including Young Children in the Process Stephen A. Armstrong and Chris S. Simpson

Article excerpt

Family therapists often provide treatment for the entire family. Talk therapy can be effective with older children, but young children do not have the capacity to respond to an abstract approach. Family play therapy is an approach that recognizes the developmental levels of all family members and provides activities that allow young children to actively participate in family sessions. This paper provides readers with the rationale for including young children in family therapy. This paper also demonstrates how a family play therapist can use expressive art activities. Examples from two family play sessions are included.

Historically, family therapists have excluded young children (ages 2-11) from the therapeutic process (Cederborg, 1997; Crane, 2000; Komer & Brown, 1990; Ruble, 1999). One survey of family therapists revealed that the majority of therapists surveyed believed that this exclusion was permissible (Johnson & Thomas, 1999).There are several possible reasons why young children are excluded from family therapy sessions. Zilbach (1994) stated, "An obvious and important, yet often overlooked reason for excluding children, particularly young children, in family therapy, is that they are children. They will not behave or speak like adults-they play and act as children do" (p. 11). Young children are unable to express themselves verbally and grasp abstract concepts and ideas. In addition, they have difficulty responding to direct questions and are often restless, bored, and even disruptive in family therapy sessions (Carr, 1994; Combrinck-Graham, 1991; Crane, 2000; Gil, 1994).

Other reasons for exclusion involve family therapists themselves. Family therapists want to protect children from destructive adult arguments and complex situations. Family therapists may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with young children. Furthermore, many family therapists are not trained to work with young children (Combrinck-Graham, 1991; Gil, 1994; Rotter & Bush, 2000; Wachtel, 1994; Zilbach, 1994). In addition, therapists may have theoretical reasons for excluding young children from the therapeutic process. Some therapists have insisted that presenting problems involving children are actually projections of the parents. These therapists have viewed the relationship of the parents as the most important issue in the family (Chasin & White, 1989; Crane, 2000; Wachtel, 1994).

However, others have contended that therapy must include children if it is to be called family therapy. Gil (1994) stated that when family therapists exclude children, part of the family system remains unengaged. Nathan Ackerman and Virginia Satir, who are often designated as the father and mother of family therapy in the literature, included young children in family therapy. Ackerman used humor to lower a family's resistance; Satir designed games for family members to play at home. Today, parent-child problems are among the most common problems that family therapists encounter in their practices (Carey, 1999; Chasin & White, 1989; Crane, 2000; Doherty & Simmons, 1996; Gil, 1994; Keith, 1986; Zilbach, 1994).

Including Young Children

Parents, children, and family therapists can all benefit from including young children in the therapeutic process. Parents, with the help of the therapist, can learn to "decode" the behaviors and communications of their children. When parents learn to enter the world of their children, a deeper emotional connection is possible for children and parents. Children feel more understood and accepted. The therapist gains increased insight and understanding about the family's structure, roles, and style of communication. When a family therapist enters the child's world instead of attempting to impose upon the child the adult's world, the therapist can engage parents and children and enhance communication and understanding (Brock & Barnard, 1999; Cox, 1997; Crane, 2000; Gil, 1994). …

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