CHEATSHEET: A Play Therapist’s Guide to Those Difficult Questions in Court

Well, it happened again this week..

I had to testify in court.

For those of you who work with kiddos, I’m betting this is a too-often occurrence for you.

I’ll admit it, I HATE court. The games, the whole let-me-see-what-I-can-get nonsense.

But, it’s a reality for many of us as child therapists.

After several years of experience testifying in court for a variety of reasons, I thought I’d write something up to help you if you get called into court.

Below is a list of some of the common questions (or interrogations) that often arise from lawyers who don’t like what you have to say.

*As an important aside- remember that if you are the treating therapist (like working with the child) then you should NOT give your opinion about custody or other matters such as that. It’s a dual relationship to do so and the second most frequent reason therapists lose their license. You can either be the treater or the opinion-giver, not both.*

Now, to get to the questions and suggested answers I promised you.  Remember, these are just suggestions, feel free to use what suits you best.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll post the questions in italics with my answers underneath each.

Cheat sheet on hand isolated on white

So, Ms. Flaherty, you have extra schooling to work with kids? Where did you receive this education? 

Yes, I am a Registered Play Therapist and I completed the requirements as given by the Association of Play Thearpy, which is most often recognized as the gold standard for organizations regarding how to work with children in therapy.

Do you work just with children?

No, I work with all ages using some of the play therapy techniques, but when you work with small children, play therapy is often the most effective route to treating the child in therapy.

When you say play therapy, what does that even mean? 

Play therapy is a developmentally appropriate method for working with children. Because children often aren’t able to express all of their emotions through words, we meet the child where he or she is- which is done through play.  For many children, play is the vocabulary and toys are the words.

You mean they talk through their toys? 

Well, I was meaning that as more of a metaphor, but children can give voice to toys such as animals and the sandtray and then it’s not so scary to talk about the feelings of the animal in the tray rather than themselves.

What’s the difference between you playing with a child with toys and then me hanging out with a child in a toy store? 

The difference is the relationship. Through thoughtful and purposeful techniques used by play therapists (or those who practice play therapy techniques), we are able to develop a consistent way of communicating with the child that allows her to build up her confidence, promote creativity and really feel heard in the session

Do the children realize what’s going on? I mean how can you build trust with a four year old? 

Yes, the children do know that play therapy involves a special time and place.  The relationship that they have with me is different than any other in their lives.  Within the space, they can practice what may be too hard outside and know their feelings are okay, no matter what they are.  And yes, children do know who they can trust- I increase trust through validating their feelings and having consistent expectations.

Why don’t you talk to everyone in the child’s life? Isn’t it helpful to know EXACTLY what happened with the child so you can know what to do? 

In a miracle world, I would be all knowing and have access to everyone in that child’s life.  But, this is just not realistic.  I work with what information I have, but the beauty and magic of play therapy is that I don’t NEED every detail of what happened before (like in abuse cases) for the therapy to be effective. Sometimes, the child never verbalizes the cause or why he is feeling better, but it doesn’t mean it’s not working.

Isn’t it your job to get to the bottom of what is going on though? 

Nope, I’m a therapist not an investigator.  Often telling the story of what occurred or is occurring is therapeutic, but this story-telling can take many forms, even through the non-verbal language of play.  The result is the same- the kid gets better.

You can work with a child and never know the exact reason for being there?

Usually, I have an idea of what is happening behind the behavior but there are times when a child isn’t able to use his words.  Again, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or isn’t important, but his brain may not be developmentally there to be able to use his language skills to express his feelings all the time, especially with severe trauma.

How do you know when play therapy is working? 

How do you know when any therapy is working? When the client gets better. When symptoms decrease- temper tantrums decrease, positive emotions increase, etc etc- then you know the therapy is working. Again, just because they can’t or don’t tell you “wow, this therapy is really helping my self-esteem” doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

Okay, so there ya go- a simple, brief cheatsheet that will hopefully be useful when YOU have to answer those hard questions, whether it’s in court or with an uncooperative parent.

Tell me some your most crazy, frustrating, or insulting questions below and how you replied when you were given the crazy eye!