We Are Family


The Wrong Therapy

The Wrong Therapy - Blake Barlow Mu4 Yn Fp1C Eu Unsplash

We adopted our son in 2013 as a young toddler and could immediately see that he had attachment difficulties.  We struggled to interact and play with him in the way we had successfully done with other children and, of course, we struggled to manage his self-directed and angry behaviour. 

When the Adoption Support Fund was started in 2015 I felt relief; it felt as though it was an acknowledgement that our kids were likely to need extra input and that we weren’t simply incompetent new parents.  At the time ‘Theraplay’ was all the rage and the catchy taglines made it sound as though it was made for us and our son, so we met with a social worker and got the go-ahead to find a practitioner.

Finding a local practitioner was fairly straightforward: we went to their house and discussed the difficulties we were having as a family.  They were empathic and seemed to understand what we were describing, so we decided to go for it.  They drew up a quote and the funding got approved quickly.

We then had an assessment session where our interactions were videoed for analysis.  We were tasked with showing our son some interesting new objects or playing some games at our own pace. The video did not show anything particularly concerning to any of us - our son was interested and engaged.

When the therapist arrived at our home for the first session, they introduced themselves again briefly to our son, then proceeded with the list of games they had brought.  The therapist seemed transformed from a sensible, thoughtful adult into a gregarious and really overbearing presence in our small space.  We ploughed through the list of games.  My son, so surprised by this stranger entering our home and taking control of the two of us in this way, was shocked into compliance. For the most part he  went along with the session.  At the end, the therapist encouraged my son to take a bottle of milk from me in my arms. He submitted to this - wide eyed and slightly alarmed – but, once he heard the front door click shut, he was out of my arms like a spring.  He proceeded to rampage around the flat, bashing and crashing everything in sight.

I’d heard that starting any kind of new therapy could be triggering for our highly sensitive little ones, so I mentioned the reaction to the therapist but didn’t put too much weight on it.  We continued in the same way for the next few weeks, but the post-therapy reactions did not seem to be easing off. Actually, they were intensifying.  My son’s behaviour seemed to be becoming more extreme; he seemed more anxious and controlling than ever.

We came to the halfway point review after six weeks and I raised my concerns and gave some examples.  The therapist looked at me disbelievingly, they asked if we’d been practising the games.  I said that my son was extremely resistant to the games as soon as the session was over. I expressed my confusion over my son’s compliance during the therapy sessions, as it seemed to be driving his non-compliant behaviour outside of them.  I then expressed how I was struggling to cope and losing hope that this intervention was benefitting him.  The therapist seemed very surprised and a little angry.  They said that my son’s general behaviour was actually very normal, ipso facto something else was the problem.  We decided to take a break from the sessions and in fact never restarted them.

Looking back now, several years later, it is easy to see why we had an unsuccessful time with Theraplay.  A major factor was my son’s later diagnosed Autism.  As he is not ‘classically’ autistic, we and other therapists then and since missed the signs.  And therein lies my bugbear: it is very easy to be drawn into a therapeutic model or intervention before having a very clear idea of the needs of your child.  My son’s skills at mimicking meant he could spend the session feigning engagement and even some enjoyment whilst becoming increasingly agitated by this (to him) totally bewildering process.  I also now feel the therapist’s approach was much too gung-ho, with little consideration of the impact of their own behaviour on my child and my relationship with him.

Having said all this, and despite my increased wariness towards any branded therapeutic intervention, I would try Theraplay again. In fact, we do still do play some of the games my son enjoyed. But I’d only try it under the following conditions:

·        With a therapist who is fully aware of all my son’s needs and the ability and likelihood of our children ‘masking’ their true reactions;

·        In a neutral space: Having another adult enter our home and having authority over myself and my son was confusing;

·        A therapist who would take a nuanced approach to the therapy, with the building of the relationship being the key aim, not playing the games;

·        A therapist who values the parents’ perspective on the relationship. Our feelings matter.


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  • Jay

    Thank you for writing this, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world but the reality is that any therapeutic process can only take place within a trusting relationship, a person needs to feel safe enough to really show what is going on for them. Your article is well written and illustrates the chasm that exists between what our children need and the practitioner who delivers the intervention. It’s all about the sensitivity of that individual you trust enough to bring into your child’s world. I think this sometimes goes wrong because we trust that the professional knows their stuff and we are guided by them, if they get it wrong and fail to create that safe space through relationship for our child we get the fall out, they just get paid. Thank you for sharing.

  • Bedia Cetin

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It is really helpful.

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