Theraplay with Adults

Originally published in the The Theraplay® Institute Newsletter of Spring, 2004

Helga Brand, Clinical Psychologist, Certified Theraplay Therapist,  Wiesloch, Germany


Imagine knowing what you lack in life: Either you have known it for a long time, or you found out during years of therapy. The process was difficult, but gave you a sense of freedom when you finally understood. What remains is sadness and longing, and the feeling that you lack something really important or essential as an adult human being.

The fairytale of “The Frog and the Princess” tells the story of an enchanted prince who is turned into a frog, condemned to live sadly in a dark pond. The frog knows how he can be released and live the rest of his life as a strong, vital prince: he must be kissed by a princess. The first time he gets the opportunity to regain his life, he shows courage, persistence and helps himself to what he needs. He is released from the enchantment and marries the princess, symbolizing that he has become an adult.

The earlier in life something essential is lacking, the more fundamental it becomes, and the more difficult it is to find an adequate substitution. One of the earliest and most fundamental experiences in life is to have your personal value and absolute uniqueness mirrored in the loving gaze of your parents’ eyes. There are people who have never had the chance for such an experience, and some keep longing for it as adults. It is difficult for adults to regain these experiences, and hard for them to find an appropriate partner to provide the missing attunement. It is difficult to admit and accept such needs, while the adult brain is saying that it is too late anyway.

We have learned to look forward, to be optimistic, and to search for solutions. This is a good strategy for most people, but for some it is not good enough, as was the case with a young woman named “Anne”. When I saw her for the first time, she felt lonely and isolated, was entangled in an unhappy personal relationship, and had already gone through various therapies. By chance she had come across “Theraplay with kids” and became convinced that it would be the right therapy for her.

Before starting treatment I had to resolve the problem of not having a “parent” to accompany the process. I told Anne that I was concerned about this, and we found a compromise: we agreed to have Theraplay sessions during which I would treat Anne like a child, and have additional “parent sessions” during which she would talk to me as an adult. This turned out to be a very good arrangement for both of us. The setting of the Theraplay sessions was similar to the ones with my young clients. A co-therapist was present during most of the sessions, sitting behind Anne holding her and assuring her that everything was all right.

As a first goal the co-therapist and I wanted Anne to leave behind her adult world of thinking and to return to a child’s world of perception. The reason for this was not to reactivate old conflicts or to work on these, but to fill her emotional holes--not to repeat early childhood experiences but to catch up on experiences that she never had as a child.

To accomplish this we arranged various “paths of touch, sound and smell”. We took Anne by the hand and guided her into the room with her eyes closed in order to make her concentrate on these senses. This was to help her return to a more childlike way of experiencing the world without the adult over-reliance on the sense of sight. I had used this technique several times before with very rational, controlled children and found that when we played games with their eyes closed, they were more easily opened up to emotional awareness. This technique also worked with Anne. In fact Anne had often already found her way back to her child´s role by the time we arrived at the Theraplay mat.

A big part of each session was spent with “check up” and looking after little injuries. During the first few sessions, Anne found it hard to let me look at her and admire her beautiful eyes, her smooth skin and so on. She wouldn’t dare have eye contact with me. However, after a while she became increasingly self-confident and, for moments, she tried to look back at me.

The remaining part of each session was dedicated to playing. We focussed on activities enabling her to experience her body: we drew the outline of her hand and cut it out, or we hid toy animals on her and let her search for them. These games gave her the chance to leave the rational world of adults and to slip into the playful and easier world of childhood. Playing offered the opportunity to feel appreciated, to laugh and even to win. We had a lot of fun during these lessons and experienced ‘childish’ and exuberant moments.

But there were also moments in which Anne was overwhelmed by her misery and grief. In sessions 5 to 9 hen Anne decided to have eye contact with me and to get emotionally involved, she began to weep. My co-therapist and I did our best to comfort ‘the mourning child’ by hugging and stroking her, singing to her, rocking and feeding her. We gave her a cup of sweet tea for her to drink with a straw, just as a mother would comfort her baby by letting her suck from her breast.

A few weeks after the therapy ended Anne sent me a letter. She wrote that the tea had tasted like “breast milk”, but that she was barely able to stand the intimacy of the situation. This aptly described the atmosphere during all her therapy sessions: they were tightrope walks for us, torn between her needs as we saw them and the need to get her permission to satisfy these needs. Nevertheless, I was sure we were on the right track, as Theraplay teacher, Ulrike Franke, had always told me not to satisfy the children’s wishes but try to meet their needs instead - a rule which I also applied in Anne’s case.

By the end of session 9 we had managed the most difficult task. Anne began to trust us and could accept and take what she needed. Nine more increasingly joyful and happy sessions followed. Anne developed into a happy kid always thinking up funny tricks she could pull on us. Her creativity and humour impressed us deeply.

Session 18 was our farewell party. Because Anne had turned from a sad frog into a vital and happy princess before our eyes, we gave her a little frog as a present. To our surprise, Anne also had a present for us: an empty, beautifully decorated egg! (Our chicken had hatched.)

During the months following therapy, Anne wrote to me a few times. Among other things, she told me that she had quit an unhappy relationship, and that she was becoming active in a number of new activities such as skiing and skating.

In our work with Anne we used the four Theraplay dimensions just as we do with children. In the beginning of her therapy “structure” and “nurture” were essential. In the course of subsequent sessions “engagement” and “challenge” became more important. It was useful to strictly separate the “child” sessions from the “parent” sessions; they never took place on the same day. Temporarily eliminating reliance on the visual sense helped Anne to regress to the affective age of her childhood. Most importantly, we learned to focus on meeting her actual needs rather than satisfying her wishes.During the months following therapy, Anne wrote to me a few times. Among other things, she told me that she had quit an unhappy relationship, and that she was becoming active in a number of new activities such as skiing and skating.