Decoding Chaotic/Messy Play: Embracing A Child’s Emotional Expression

Nov 24, 2023

In this episode of the Play Therapy Podcast, I discuss a question by Emma in Georgia about managing messy play in therapy sessions. Emma describes a child who engages in a flurry of activities, making a mess and moving rapidly from one thing to another, leaving play unattended. First, it’s crucial to understand that this behavior often mirrors a child’s internal state. Frantic and chaotic play reflects their feelings, and messy play aligns their environment with those emotions. Rather than setting limits, recognize that this behavior is a form of communication; the child is showing where they are internally. Teasing apart whether it’s true messy play or just chaotic behavior is essential. As for limits, ensure that safety is maintained, and toys aren’t intentionally broken. Ask yourself, “Is this limit necessary? Can I accept this behavior and still accept the child? Can I consistently enforce this limit?” Remember, child-centered therapy respects the child’s lead. Trust the process; eventually, they’ll naturally find their balance. If you’ve had or will have a child like this, it’s part of the journey. Keep exploring, trust yourself, and remember, patience is key.

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  • Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
  • VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
  • Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
  • Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.
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