At the Children’s Advocacy Center (Advocacy Center) for North Texas in Lewisville, therapists provide a unique treatment approach to victims of abuse through play therapy. This is a type of therapy provided to children of all ages. It is something that allows kids to work through their past trauma and current emotions while also healing in a safe space.
“When kids don’t necessarily have the words or language to express what’s going on, they can really show you with the actions they take through play,” licensed professional counselor and clinical therapist Ashley Summerfield said during a recent interview.
While teenagers and adults are able to use verbal communication, kids oftentimes cannot and this therapy allows them to convey their feelings. At the Advocacy Center, kids are provided with a more direct form of play therapy that includes table time. The kids are told when they walk into the room that they are going to visit first with a therapist before engaging in their playtime.
“I think letting them know that structure helps build rapport and also, they’re getting one-on-one attention from an adult and they’re getting to lead the play,” licensed professional counselor and clinical therapist Tori Turner said. “Most kids don’t get attention like that outside of therapy time, so it kind of builds rapport really fast and builds that special connection.”
While at play therapy, the children have a wide variety of toys to choose from that have been strategically placed around the room. They are given the option to play with whichever toys they decide and create any story they would like.
“As adults, we can sit here and use our words and say, ‘I feel this because this,’” Turner said. “Kids don’t really have the cognitive ability to be able to do that, so they use toys as their words. People who do play therapy are trained to see the way they’re playing with the toys and interpret that and be able to reflect.”
Although play therapy involves working with a kid, therapists know they are also working with a parent, as only the parents can change the dynamics of a home environment.
“Things can happen outside of the family, but a lot of times it’s happening within the family and that whole family dynamic system has shifted, it’s changed, and that parent is no longer in the home,” Summerfield said. “Something that we really focus on here is, if we can, offering the parents services as well as the kids so that way they’re getting their own support and learning the skills to be able to better support their kiddo and just build that self-awareness. We really focus on a family systems approach too.”
One way the Advocacy Center focuses on this family systems approach is through their education department, which puts on monthly parent cafés that their therapists on staff can refer parents to. These serve to help adults focus on obtaining the skills and support needed to better help their kids.
“We have some different types of parent groups and also, depending on ages, we have a CPRT group for a Child-Parent Relationship Therapy,” Summerfield said. “That focuses on if you have a kiddo between the ages of three and ten, just a general parenting skills group. We also provide individual therapy if that parent has their own trauma that they haven’t been able to process and they’re being triggered by their own kids’ abuse or trauma.”
“I always like to think, unfortunately, trauma happens to kids whether we like it or not, so at least I’m able to help and do something after the fact,” Turner said. “It’s already happened to them, so I might as well be one of those people on the tail end and help them through that journey.”
In addition to working at the Advocacy Center, Turner and Summerfield have also published and illustrated two childrens’ books, each highlighting a different area of abuse. The books follow a cloud family and showcase good ways to handle these types of events, such as telling a safe and trusted adult or recognizing when something is not right.
“We wrote the first one which focuses on physical abuse, Klaus the Fearful Cloud, just out of a need,” Summerfield said. “Especially through COVID, we saw a huge rise in physical abuse and how there are not so many resources for younger kids. A lot of things are geared more toward teenagers or adults, so we realized there weren’t many resources for kids.”
Turner and Summerfield wrote the books to highlight topics that aren’t commonly talked about or ones that are hard to discuss with others. Their goal is to give professionals and parents tools to have those tough conversations with kids and support them through whatever they are experiencing.
“It’s things that we see everyday. Like the physical abuse book, that one came out of a need,” Turner said. “We were getting so many physical abuse cases and we were like ‘there’s no kid books out there about this, why don't we make one.’ There are other sexual abuse books out there that provide education, but because we do this every single day, we really highlighted the parts that we see missing in our books.”
While the books have proven helpful for kids experiencing abuse, they are beneficial for anyone to read. Turner and Summerfield know that oftentimes, kids only tell their friends when they are the victims of abuse. These friends usually do not know what to do with that kind of information.
“Even kids who haven’t been physically or sexually abused, it’s really good information to just go over because unfortunately these things do happen,” Turner said. “We obviously would like to prevent it if we can. Those books have a lot of safety pieces for prevention too.”
The pair currently has two more books in the works that will focus on different types of abuse. Through their play therapy sessions and childrens’ books, Turner and Summerfield have gotten to first-hand witness the transformation and healing within a family that comes from therapy.
“I think it’s so cool to be able to see the growth because like I said these bad things have already happened to these kids, so when we are working with them in the beginning, things are so raw and so fresh that there’s lots of behavior issues,” Turner said. “Not just the victim, but usually their parents, their siblings, the entire family unit is out of whack because something bad happened. It really does affect everyone so being able to see all that chaos and craziness in the beginning and then able to see them through their therapy. We have assessments and stuff that help really see the reduction in symptoms but you also get to see it with your eyes too.”
The scope of play therapy cares for kids experiencing large transitions such as a divorce in the family, a school change or moving. While many people think play therapy is only for kids that have experienced traumatic events, it is something that can benefit any child going through a new experience, big change, or struggling to manage behaviors and emotions. Play therapy serves to help any youth experiencing the day to day aspects of life.
"When kids don’t necessarily have the words or language to express what’s going on, they can really show you with the actions they take through play,”
"can benefit any child going through a new experience, big change, or struggling to manage behaviors and emotions."