Concerned about over-medicating your children? Consider play therapy

"You’re messing with brain chemistry, which is a double-edged sword to say the least."

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overhead therapy shot
Play therapy focuses on the underlying themes revealed in children’s play activities. (Photo courtesy the Association for Play Therapy).

There are over 8 million children on psychiatric drugs in the United States, according to IMS Health, one of the largest healthcare information providers in the world. Over 1 million of these children are 5 years old or younger.

But there are other options – one of which is play therapy.

Shawn Morton
Shawn Morton, a Registered Play Therapist, has his offices in Hampstead, NC. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Morton).

Port City Daily spoke with Shawn Morton, a licensed therapist who practices in the Hampstead area, to learn more about this emerging type of therapy. Morton is a member of the Association for Play Therapy, which holds an annual “National Play Therapy Week” in early February.

“Just to give you a sense of what we’re doing, it both is and isn’t as simple as it sounds,” Morton said. “My background is in play therapy. We’re using play – including toys and acting out scenarios – to deal with a whole range of issues, from things as simple as not following directions to more complicated issues like OCD, aggressiveness and attention deficit problems.”

Play therapy tends to deal with the same issues in childhood and adolescent behavior that psychiatric drugs do, but without some of the dangers.

“Masters-level practitioners, like myself and other Registered Play Therapists [RPTs], we’re not prescribing drugs and we’re not trained on them and their side-effects and dangers. But I do know you’re messing with brain chemistry, which is a double-edged sword to say the least,” he said. “A child’s brain chemistry is so fluid, and we know now that it stays fluid into the early 20s, so it’s very hard to predict how medication is going to affect a child.”

Morton added, “I just believe there’s so much that therapy can do, that parents and teachers can do – if I was a parent, I would absolutely pursue alternatives before I went to something psycho-pharmacological. Unless it’s something pretty extreme, I mean something that’s very resistant to therapy, like schizophrenia or bipolar depression, I would always try something like play therapy first.”

According to IMS study, only 10 percent of children on psychiatric drugs are taking anti-psychotics designed for schizophrenia and related disorders, compared – for example – with 4 million being treated for ADHD.

drugs!!!
Over eight million children in the United States are prescribed psychoactive medication.

Morton said that many parents do respond to the lure of ‘quick fixes,’ promised by medication. He also said parents do sometimes approach him, skeptical that the therapy is simply “glorified play time” billed to their insurance.

“Like many kinds of therapy,” Morton said, “what we do behind closed doors can be kind of mysterious and it’s also time consuming. And it’s understandable that parents would be frustrated, that they would think, ‘come on, you’re just playing with toys in there.’ And, often, it’s because they’ll ask their children, ‘what did you do in therapy today?’ Which is good, because they’re involved. But sometimes children aren’t aware of what’s really transpired, in terms of therapy, and they’ll say, ‘oh nothing,’ or maybe worse, ‘oh, we just played with toys.’ But the therapy is really hard work, both for the therapist and the child.”

Children, especially young children, often work through their issues without recognizing it in the same way as older clients, according to Morton.

“They’re not miniature adults. Their logic is different, their sense of perspective is different,” he said. “Play has been unfortunately misrepresented for some time, and that’s diminished its perceived importance. But, in reality, play is a child’s language. Play is how children express things they don’t have words for.”

therapy sessison
Sessions typically last 40-50 minutes, during which therapists study the child’s choices and behavior, and the child gets a chance to work through issues. (Photo courtesy of Association for Play Therapy)

Morton related the story of a young patient, a 3-year-old boy. The child had been getting in trouble in his pre-school and, during the first session, started searching through the collection of toys. He eventually settled on an adult animal toy and an infant juvenile toy.

“He hid the ‘daddy’ toy and spent the entire rest of the session acting out the infant toy looking for the dad toy,” Morton said.

The child’s father was on military deployment and the child, Morton said, was unable to understand his periodic absences. After using play to work through this confusion, the child’s school problems ceased.

“Now, it’s not always this cut and dry kind of scenario,” Morton clarified. “It can be, and it often is, a lot more complicated and it can take much longer. But that’s the principle at work.”

Play therapy, which has a long history, has become increasing popular. This, according to Morton, can be problematic as some practitioners will bill themselves as ‘play therapists’ without offering the full spectrum of clinical attention.

“Sometimes this means they just don’t have the full training, sometimes it means they’ve just got toys in the waiting room. But the national association [Association for Play Therapy] accredits practitioners as both Registered Play Therapists and Registered Play Therapist Supervisors. That gives you a good way to find a therapist who really knows their stuff,” he said.

Certified in play therapy 10 years ago, Morton got his national credentials in play therapy in 2011. This required an additional 150 hours of continuing education and 500 hours of hands on practice in play therapy.

“It’s a serious investment, but it’s worth it. I’ve seen some of the most amazing changes, the most drastic turnarounds in children who seemed unresponsive to other therapy. Many of them, after they’ve been in play therapy for a while, just don’t seem to need it anymore.”

For more information about play therapy, visit the Association for Play Therapy website.

Below: A video PSA from the Association for Play Therapy.