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Integrating Play in Family Therapy: An Interview with Eliana Gil, Ph.D.


Teresa M. Christensen and Jill M. Thorngren
The Family Journal 2000; 8; 91
DOI: 10.1177/1066480700081017

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THE FAMILY
Christensen, Thorngren
JOURNAL:/ PLAY
COUNSELING
IN FAMILYAND
THERAPY
THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES / January 2000

v Interview

Integrating Play in Family Therapy:


An Interview With Eliana Gil, Ph.D.
Teresa M. Christensen
University of New Orleans
Jill M. Thorngren
Montana State University, Bozeman

E
liana Gil, Ph.D., is currently the
director of the Starbright Training
Institute for child abuse and neglect,
parents. It rarely involves young children in conjoint family
sessions for any length of time. (p. v)

As play and family therapists, we have struggled with


play therapy, and family play therapy in actively integrating young children and their unique
Springfield, Virginia. She is also the approaches of communicating in family therapy. Accord-
coordinator for the Abused Children’s ingly, Gil’s numerous publications and vast experiences have
Treatment Program at the Inova Keller consistently spoken to us and assisted us in coconstructing
Center in Fairfax, Virginia, and a clini- family therapy sessions that effectively integrate the para-
cian in private practice in Rockville, digms of play and family therapy. Consequently, we leapt at
Maryland. Among her previously noted the opportunity to converse with Gil regarding her ideas,
credentials, Dr. Gil is also a registered play therapy supervi- experiences, and feelings about play in family therapy. In
sor, a registered art therapist, and a certified family therapist. early November 1998, we attended a workshop on Play Ther-
She presents on various topics related to family and play ther- apy for Children and Families in Crisis in Pocatello, Idaho.
apy and serves as an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Tech Dr. Gil was kind enough to engage in an afternoon of dia-
and George Washington Universities. Dr. Gil also has made logue, which resulted in the following narrative.
numerous contributions to the field of counseling through
serving on various boards and publishing many articles and EVOLUTION
books. Currently, she serves on the boards of directors of both
the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children Thorngren: First, we would like to get some background
and the National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse. information about those experiences that led to your
She has authored many books on play and family therapy, work with incorporating play in family therapy.
including Systemic Treatment of Families Who Abuse Gil: My initial training was in family therapy where all the
families I worked with were abused families. That
(1996a), Play in Family Therapy (1994), The Healing Power
meant that the presenting problem was related to the
of Play: Therapy With Abused Children (1991), and Treating child and some problem or dysfunction in the par-
Abused Adolescents (1996b). ent-child interaction. My experience in family therapy
As indicated by Dr. Gil and supported in family and play left me dry about how you work with kids. I felt like
therapy literature, for various reasons, many family therapists there was almost a domino principle—that if you work
struggle with families that include young children. Often- with the families and help them get better somehow this
times, family therapists either intentionally or unintentionally will affect the child and the child will get better as a
exclude young children because they do not know how to or result. But I noticed that a lot of these kids had a variety
do not feel comfortable involving children actively in family of issues of their own that needed to be addressed in a
sessions. As Robert-Jay Green commented in the forward to safe environment. I began thinking to myself, “I like
Gil’s book titled Play in Family Therapy (1994), family therapy but I want to see these kids individually
to see how they are away from their parents or do some
Thus, in actual practice, the field we call “family therapy” of the work I think they need to have done.” Also, given
usually consists of treating an individual parent, or only the my population, a lot of times there was not an intact
parental couple, or sometimes an adolescent and one or both family. I worked with children in foster placements,

THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES, Vol. 8 No. 1, January 2000 91-100
© 2000 Sage Publications, Inc.

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92 THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES / January 2000

group home placements, and residential centers. I 12-and-younger group in particular, many family thera-
really felt these kids needed some experience, even if pists feel stymied. Now in some cases (the 13-and-older
you maintain a systemic view. Therefore, I began work- group—as long as the children are highly verbal), some
ing with the individual child and talking about systemic family therapists feel differently, more competent. For
issues. But I still felt there was something important example, I think Peggy Papp did some dynamic work
that was imperative that needed to happen for them. when she talked about family sculpting because that
They needed family therapy, if possible. So I think in could involve children and children could definitely get
answer to your question, it came from a combination of interested in role-playing pretend sculptures and things
exposure to the type of problem I was working with and like that. But that’s been kind of a rarity. When you look
my understanding of trauma. Sometimes children need at the literature in the family therapy field—I mean,
an opportunity to have a healing experience, and some- Whitaker did some but he didn’t really say what he did
times that can be done alone away from the family at and what he did also seemed to be more Whitaker than
first and later with the family working in the child’s par- anything else is. There have been some notable excep-
adigm. The families I work with are sometimes those tions, obviously, of people who have really paid atten-
people who are involved in hurtful experiences. When I tion to integrating play into family therapy but not a lot
have a biological family who is willing to work and par- and not enough. Now on the other side of this integrated
ticipate in treatment, or mandated, I always include approach lay the play therapists. When I started really
family sessions to try to give them a reparative experi- seeking out my own training in play therapy, I encoun-
ence in terms of parent-child dyads. As I continued val- tered lots of play therapists who feel totally comfort-
uing the corrective manner that the child-therapist rela- able with kids but uncomfortable with adults (“Don’t
tionship could offer to a family, I realized that every make me talk to those adults”). These therapists do not
child deserved that. So I started out as a “child thera- know what to say to parents; they do not know how to
pist” and then quickly went to play in family therapy. I speak to them. It’s hilarious to watch these two separate
had to pursue my own training in play therapy because groups of people working with the same population
it wasn’t offered. I started tracking down every work- who feel reluctant to integrate them. Again I go back to
shop, conference, and book on play therapy. I continued it’s a sense of not feeling competent and that as soon as
doing this until I felt well versed enough in play ther- therapists feel that they know what to do, they have
apy. Ironically, now I end up, like so many people, something to do. Then therapists know how to relate to
introducing play therapy as a concept. So it has been and instruct other people/parents on how to do it. I have
just a very interesting evolution. consistently found that once therapists have the tools,
Christensen: In your writing and throughout your work- they use them, but it takes quite a long time for them to
shop, you shared your perceptions about the “down- get comfortable. Even as I go around teaching people
play” or hesitance of many training programs and pro- about family play, it’s one thing to know, “Okay, I need
fessionals regarding play therapy and the inclusion of this, this, and this, and I understand how to run the
small children in family therapy. Would you please activity.” It’s another thing for them to say, “But, okay,
speak more about that? after the family finishes the activity, what do I do? What
Gil: I think that first of all I have direct experience with that does this have to do with the therapy? How do I make
because I got a Ph.D. in family therapy. Throughout connections?”
that entire family therapy program, any time there were
young children, they were given pencils and papers and
asked to go and draw something. My feeling in just TECHNIQUES
watching this was “You go be out of the way while we
do this important work with your parents.” When talk- Christensen: You commented in your writing and in your
ing to family therapists, I realized that they do not par- workshop that you often use play to spice up your reper-
ticularly feel competent working with young children toire of family interventions. Essentially, you are say-
and are almost afraid of them because they’re not as ing that you integrate play therapy and family counsel-
verbal. Many family therapists do not feel they are ing techniques. For example, you talk about using the
skilled in engaging children in therapy and often get narrative approaches, like the aquarium or puppet inter-
very frustrated with children when they don’t respond view, to allow for the emergence of information and
the way older kids can respond, like in terms of such provide the families with the opportunity to coconstruct
limits as “sit down” or “speak when you’re spoken to.” their environment in therapy. Can you speak more
So it’s been interesting to hear people say that “no” they about that?
do not have enough training in this area. On the average, Gil: Yes. Again, when holding these two different fields of
in the entire course of their training, they maybe got a study, I look at the possibility of integration. My origi-
course in Child Psychopathology, which doesn’t tell nal pressure came from feeling that when we did family
you much about therapy. Or maybe they had a course in therapy without play, when we did verbal family ther-
Child Development, which again doesn’t necessarily apy with kids, we were putting a demand on them to
tell you much about therapy. When it comes to the communicate in a way that adults do. In other words, it

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Christensen, Thorngren / PLAY IN FAMILY THERAPY 93

seemed like it was not a user-friendly environment to Gil: As a matter of fact, I have just finished writing a chap-
kids and even the circular questioning or whatever, it’s ter for somebody else’s book on family play therapy
still so verbally focused. I wonder what would happen techniques. I went through and described a lot of tech-
if instead of putting the demand of the adult world on niques. I will talk about the ones that I seem to lean
the child, we reversed it and put the demands of the toward the most. I almost always start with the puppets,
child’s world on the adults. Just every now and then, as and I do not know exactly why. I think it’s the easiest
an experience, I would have the families interact with thing to do. Sometimes the art requires people to work
the play. The idea was, this was play in and of itself and with materials and easels you have to bring in. Also,
could the play serve as a link, a bridge, between these sometimes when you ask people to do art, there’s an
two worlds that are so different—one so confident and immediate, “I can’t.” There’s a performance anxiety. I
verbal and the other so creative, pretending and nonver- usually start with the puppets and this thing called the
bal, like a fantasy world. This would be the bridge and family puppet interview where the therapist has the
at the same time with that bridge, we could cause some family tell a story. After the story, there is a for-
new interaction between parent and child that might be mal/structured kind of dialogue that goes on, which is
rewarding—that might not be so deeply immersed in designed to, in some ways, make meaning of the fam-
negative patterns of relating. Essentially, my goal was ily’s story and issues. In other words, going from right
to give people an opportunity to have them view each brain to left brain activity pretty quickly. I think of it
other differently. So a child, for example, whose parent much more as family puppet sessions and I don’t go to
had never played with them or been interested in their the end point immediately. What I’m trying to do much
play could suddenly have a parent attentive to their more of now, and have experimented with over the
play. This resulted in new perceptions of each other. years, is after the person, the people, tells the story to
They would share something that was important, defi- actually have the family therapy occur with the pup-
nitely to the child and hopefully to the parent. It really pets. In other words, the therapist and family stay
was all about the bridge. The bridge became the meta- within the metaphor, within the characters. They do not
phor for connecting two worlds. take the puppets off their hands and the therapist starts
Christensen: Like creating a shared narrative or a com- talking only to the puppets that are in the story. As a
mon reality. therapist, you can do all the different kinds of play ther-
Gil: Absolutely! Something that we can actually do apy interventions as if you were working with a family.
together that doesn’t have to be right or wrong. It’s just You just stay with Mr. Owl, for example, “Owl, I notice
who we are and the different things that come out, and that Mouse was trying to get your attention. I wondered
time together. I also found that so many of the parents if you noticed that?” and/or “Mr. Turtle, it looked like
that I worked with had never actually been given the you were left out of the play altogether and I’m just kind
opportunity to play. Many parents came from back- of wondering what that was like for you? Have other
grounds where they were the parents to their parents people ever felt left out?” and so forth.
instead of being the child. Some parents never had a Christensen: So it’s almost like externalizing the problem?
warm and nurturing environment, so in another way, I Gil: Figuratively—exactly—and oftentimes it allows for a
was providing the parent with something I hoped they wonderful processing to occur. Again, the defensives
would then be able to provide to their child. Some of are still down because you’re in character and all the
family therapy is about modeling that for parents. interventions are being done with the characters. So
Thorngren: It seems that you have been effective in inte- you might say to them, “Well, during the week that
grating two realms of therapy. Would you say that play comes, Mr. Turtle, I think that one of the things that you
in family therapy is not a distinct approach, with spe- might want to experiment with is taking some flowers
cific step-by-step techniques, but really an integration over to the Owl to see how the Owl responds,” and so
of various interactions? forth. It is all still done in the metaphor. Then you close
Gil: Yes, and more! I think it requires somebody who is that session and it’s possible to come back and have that
willing to expand his or her view of therapy in the sense whole story told again or tell a new one with the same
of going beyond conscious material versus uncon- characters. It’s also possible that some of the interven-
scious material, verbal versus nonverbal, then integrat- tions you give the family get translated in other ways.
ing the possibility of symbolism, metaphor, and meta- For instance, I remember one situation where the meta-
phorical language. This is the kind of thing that many phor had to do with an alligator in the pond and we
therapists do not feel comfortable with, as if they are ended up talking about the alligator being threatening
not conversant with it. I go back to: Nobody starts out to others or the perception was that the alligator would
being conversant with anything. You have to experi- hurt them. Finally the alligator said, “But, you know, I
ment. You have to practice. don’t really want them to run away. I want them to stay
Thorngren: In terms of specific techniques, you talk a lot and play.” I said to him/the alligator, “If they stayed and
about art and sand work. Would you give some exam- played, what would you most like to do?” He replied,
ples of specific activities and techniques that have “Have a picnic.” So we talked about what kind of picnic
worked for you? the alligator would like to have with the other people in

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94 THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES / January 2000

the story. The long and short of it was that the family including many things that can be integrated into ther-
went home and spontaneously during the week went on apy. I believe that every now and then it’s the therapist’s
a picnic. Now that’s an interesting connection to make job to sort of tease out things that can then be promoted
between unconscious material and conscious material. with the family or that can be language that gets incor-
Likewise, another art technique we did with the family porated into what the family’s going to focus on. The
was drawing a fruit salad, where they have the experi- family art evaluation allows this to happen.
ence of making a fruit salad together. This technique The family aquarium is another technique that I
takes it from the less concrete to the more concrete and started using because it integrates individual issues as
in the process of doing the fruit salad, one of the chil- well as family issues. Essentially, it requires moving
dren was left out completely. It was actually the same from a task that requires people to do a project where
alligator kid and so instead of doing anything, he drew they draw a fish, any fish they want. Then, once the fish
an alligator coming to eat the fruit salad. Then the is drawn, they decorate it. They put on feathers, beads,
mother got mad at him. But it was one of those wonder- and color it in. It gets to be a big project. That is the first
ful, systemic moments where she could see that, in fact, piece of it, which is all about self-image and projection.
her attempts at ignoring him actually precipitated his Is it a shark as opposed to a dolphin? I’ve had kids who
acting out behavior. couldn’t limit themselves to one fish. They have to be
Christensen: So these techniques allow for the therapist two fish. You know, stuff like that. I’ve also had kids
and family members to give meaning to their interactions who’ve changed the function of the fish so it will be a
and manners of relating to one another. That was that shark but with a good heart. With a protective shark,
particular family member’s role in his family. Wow! they change the function of the animal. Then I have the
Gil: Exactly. So that family actually was very interesting, family select a piece of blue-green poster board and ask
so much so that the mother was able to, over the weeks them to create a body of water. I start out with the aquar-
between the sessions, either look at the tapes or look at ium by saying, “This will be an aquarium.” But I found
the art and come back and say, “You know what I that sometimes people didn’t want to have an aquarium.
noticed was . . . ” That is ideally what I want to have They wanted to have an ocean—they wanted a pond, a
happen. Sometimes it won’t come from them. Some- lake, or whatever. So nowadays I lean toward a body of
times it has to come from me, where I’ll show them the water and then the family together decides on the type
tape and say, “Now I want you to notice what happens of body of water. Once the body of water is decided on,
right now. Now what did you see? What I saw was he the next part is to create an environment. Here they go
kept asking what kind of fruit he should be and nobody into that poster board and add to the water. They add
paid attention to him. As no one paid attention to him, food, snakes, plants, a bottom, or whatever. Some peo-
you could see him get really upset. Now he’s the alliga- ple get really involved. They even go to the extreme of
tor and he wants to be aggressive. How could you putting in barometers so that the water temperature is
change that?” Slowly but surely, most families begin to good or putting in filters so that the water is clean. Some
grasp the concepts that therapists are trying to commu- continue making sure that there’s plenty of food and
nicate. It is all very nonthreatening and that allows different kinds of food for people. Others make sure
everyone in therapy to relax and get involved. For that there are caves or places where the kids can isolate
instance, sometimes people say to me, “What about the or play.
dads?” because everybody thinks that the men don’t Then there is the other end of the continuum where
participate. Some of the best puppet renditions have these family projects possess the absence of such
been by men who just totally get into using their voices. healthy things, thus representing a complete disregard
Furthermore, the selection of puppets is very interest- for a nurturing environment. Examples include cutting
ing from the outset. What somebody chooses has some off sunrays and including fishhooks where someone’s
meaning to them, tells you a little bit, or suggests some- fishing and there’s danger. I had a real extreme case
thing. It is like I’m always saying, “What do you think with a kid who was in a lot of trouble and a lot of pain.
is suggested by this?” That’s really where you need to He drew himself with one eye out because all the other
go. So the family puppet technique is one that I like a fish had picked it out and were eating his eye. I thought
lot. I’ll do that over time at different intervals. Some- that was a very powerful metaphor. Sometimes there
times they come in and want to do one and that’s fine. are body pieces in the aquarium because people had
The key is the interaction with the metaphor, expanding died and left body pieces. I mean, you get all kinds of
the metaphor, and keeping the interventions there as variations on the themes. I’ve been trying simply to re-
opposed to going outside. Another technique that I like cord all the things people include or don’t include. I’m
a lot has to do with family art stuff and there is a struc- trying to develop grading sheets so that you can actually
tured technique called the family art evaluation. There look at this and then mark off things because there are
is a book written by Peterson and Hardin (1997) that times that certain aspects make my intuition go in cer-
describes this particular technique that I find incredibly tain directions, which sometimes people aren’t trained
informative. Rich metaphors come out of this activity, to do.

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Christensen, Thorngren / PLAY IN FAMILY THERAPY 95

Thorngren: It seems as if your activities allow you to get interesting. I also do a garden where everyone is given a
the symbolism and meaning out of what’s going on in piece of construction paper as their plot where they can
the family. choose to grow garden vegetables, flowers, trees, or
Gil: Absolutely. They also allow me to document it whatever they want in their plot. Then they come
because it’s very hard to catch all of that. So I’m very together on a poster board and have all these plots coex-
invested in trying to develop grading sheets for the isting. They have to find ways to get from one plot to
aquarium now. I’ve also started making available black another to irrigate the plots and so forth and so on. I’ve
poster board because I’ve had some families that didn’t started with that basic principle of having this task
want either the blue or the green; they thought they where it’s projective initially and then systemic at the
were too bright. Really what they’re talking about is end and environmental or contextual.
flatness, depression, withdrawal, and isolation. So now I just started free-associating and came up with a
I make different colors of poster boards available. whole bunch of different activities like the ones that
Once the environment is set up, the last piece is that I’ve explained. Those are just some of the examples and
now all the fish must coexist. Here you get to see are the ones I’m writing up in the chapter I mentioned
boundaries, alliances, conflicts, the family hierarchy, earlier. When I teach the family play therapy class, the
and how they relate. We have people separate the waters students have an assignment in groups of three or four
so that there’s one family member totally isolated from of designing a play therapy technique. You should see
the others. This one kid I was telling you about changed the stuff they’ve come up with—it’s been fabulous. It’s
his shark from something to fear to something that as- been really good.
sisted and protected his family. Then he placed himself Christensen: That seems to be a common theme—the cre-
in the water behind the mother on one side and around ativity and allowing yourself to flow with your ideas, as
the mother on the other. The mother looked at that and you say “free associate.” That takes some skill and trust
said, “I can see how much of my time he requires, how in yourself and the families that you work with.
much he needs me.” This was a positive statement as Gil: Absolutely. But it’s also responding to the people
opposed to what she usually would say, “He’s on me all because they supply me with a lot of ideas. Somebody
the time.” She changed her thinking to “He needs me.” might bring up something that strikes a chord in me. For
Then when she said, “Oh, do you have to have a shark?” example, a guy that I was working with took his family
He said, “But it has a heart of gold.” So again, she com- to a racetrack for recreation. So when I got to this task, I
mented on how sometimes aggressiveness is what she said, “Okay, everyone draw a race car.” That was
notices about him but really he has a very sweet, tender another technique that I just went to because that was
side. That is the aquarium project and it’s been one of important to their family. It is really an interesting kind
the most amazing experiences. of give-and-take; a creative kind of back-and-forth
Christensen: I’ll bet. As you described the activity, I experience between the family and the therapist.
thought about how this relates to many premises
Thorngren: In your work, you include play and art tech-
included in the social constructionist perspective. The
family and the therapist were cocreating their environ- niques combined with family dynamics. You gather a
ments, their realities, and their manners of relating to wealth of information. I think of many of the therapists
others. I was amazed at the symbolism and meaning for that I know who would say, “I wouldn’t know where to
the individual and in terms of family systems. It also begin with that.” How would you respond to them?
allowed me to envision how you are a part of the cre- Gil: I understand your hesitance but you have training in
ation of their environments. relating to people and that is what family play therapy is
Gil: Absolutely. It’s great. It’s a wonderful constellation of all about. The funny thing is, a lot of the play therapists
systemic thinking without failing to recognize the indi- already do all these techniques; they just don’t do them
vidual and the family’s dynamics. It is because of this in the context of families. Oftentimes, they actually
that the aquarium has become sort of a staple that I do have a much easier transition than the family therapists
with most families. In addition, I started some maps, do. I also think the family therapists can be taught.
which is another example of an activity that follows this Especially if you write down on a piece of paper, “Buy
same kind of format and content. I’ve also done things poster board, this color, buy art supplies, etc., and here’s
like a family vase where family members are asked to a checklist.” Honestly, my experience has been that
draw a picture of flowers, decorate it, and then the fam- most family therapists respond very well to specific
ily comes together to create a floral arrangement that ideas and activities. For example, with the family art
makes up the vase. I’ve also got one called the carnival evaluation, we actually started putting a rating sheet
park where everyone is a carnival ride that they each together. The last time I looked at it, we were up to
make. They then have to put them in relationship to something like 28 pages. We can’t seem to quite cut it
each other in the park and make each of those events down to where it needs to be. I think that if there was
have a cost to them. They put in the safeguards around something available like a rating sheet where it could be
who can ride it and who can’t. That has been very submitted to a registered play therapist for consultation or

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96 THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES / January 2000

feedback that many family therapists would have an Gil: Exactly! I become the audience and I listen to the indi-
easier time incorporating play in their sessions. viduals’ and families’ stories.
Christensen: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. I hear you
TRAINING encouraging therapists to go ahead and kind of learn by
getting into the fire and having the confidence to just do
Christensen: I hear you saying that it is a matter of learn- it.
ing by doing. This leads to training. What are some vital Gil: Yes. Therapists in general have to get into it. I also
aspects of training someone specifically in utilizing think that family therapists might want to expose them-
play in family therapy? selves to play therapy information because most family
Gil: The biggest thing is learning by doing. I have found therapists just don’t read play literature. It’s so funny
that once therapists give themselves a chance by taking when you think about it—how totally separate these
a chance, they learn and gain confidence. I encourage fields are and yet they’re often working within the
people to go and practice with people that they work dynamics of family systems. I think that one of the big-
with, others in training programs, extended family gest steps for many family therapists is to open them-
members, or friends that have children. They can just selves to reading and exposing themselves to play ther-
say, “Come on over and let’s do this activity.” It’s defi- apy. There are some wonderful books now that even
nitely not something that’s going to be harmful to any- include case studies on play therapy. So it does not even
body. This gives therapists an opportunity to get the have to be dry material with straight didactics, just
experience of doing it, watching it, observing it, decod- something to show how kids use play to communicate.
ing it, and listening to what families are communicat- For example, O’Connor’s (1991) book has to do with
ing. Some kind of concrete experience so that you don’t all the theoretical bases for play therapy and how they
have people say, “Well, the kid was just playing and he differ from each other. Therapists can expose them-
didn’t say anything.” Kids say volumes through play if selves to that and then kind of decide what they lean
you’re listening. toward. Then they can decide on specific techniques
Thorngren: Right. If you know how to look at it. Do that they want to use.
you just hope and assume that the therapist under- Thorngren: You are basically suggesting that family ther-
stands children and play enough to understand the apists expose themselves to play therapy and utilize
symbolism? some of those techniques and theories in their family
Gil: No, which is exactly the main point that I’m trying to sessions.
make with the field of family therapy. Family therapists Gil: Yes. Then if you do a play activity with the family and
must have some knowledge and experience with basic you feel like you have nothing to say, you have no idea
play and child therapy. Most family therapists have what just happened, just say to them, “Thanks a lot for
been very responsive, but again, there is some resis- doing this. I’m going to think about this and review the
tance. I believe resistance is really about fear of incom- material for a week or 2 and then we’ll talk about it
petence and inadequacy. I also believe that the resis- some more.” This provides therapists with a chance to
tance pertains to not knowing where to get these tools gather their thoughts. I think that a dilemma for many
and/or thinking that maybe it’s a wee bit expensive to therapists is the feeling that they’re going to be under
do that. There are certain therapists that are resistant the gun to come up with some idea immediately or
because they contend that the adults in the family won’t come up with an interpretation or revelation.
want to do play in the family therapy sessions or that it Christensen: Yes, it is almost as if there is some sort of per-
won’t be seen as professional. I believe that in many sit- formance anxiety. As a play therapist and supervisor,
uations this is a total projection on the part of the family not only have I observed this in others but I have experi-
therapist. Then I go back and say, “If you convey it as enced this as well. I have said to myself, “I’m going to
important work, are congruent, and know what you say need to do it right, or I’m going to need to perform, or I
is congruent with how you present it, people will see it better make them get something out of this.” It seems as
that way as well.” Even with families where you can see if that adequacy piece is a main dilemma that therapists
a certain reluctance, I say to them, “You know, lots of encounter when incorporating play in family therapy.
times families initially aren’t comfortable with this or Gil: Exactly! Therapists get stuck in making sense of it or
don’t understand exactly what we’re doing. You have to performing. I think that’s where the anxiety comes
trust me on this one. Trust me and you may be surprised from. Therapists step into an area that they don’t feel
what comes out.” That usually works for me. In a sense, completely well versed in and feel scared or inade-
I cajole people sometimes. I never force them; I just quate. I think that is where theory comes into play.
strongly encourage them. Then even if they’re reluctant
in specific ways, I try to get their involvement in other THEORY
ways, like a puppet interview.
Christensen: You basically enlist their involvement by Gil: The really neat thing about play therapy is that play
asking them to construct and concretely express their techniques in particular can lend themselves to any the-
own realities and stories. oretical approach. So if you’re a narrative therapist,

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Christensen, Thorngren / PLAY IN FAMILY THERAPY 97

then you’re doing puppet stories. I mean, you can Gil: That is another piece of it, which may be more about
address the narrative questions within the story of the me personally than this approach to therapy. Because of
puppets. my work with abused families, I often found myself
Thorngren: So you are saying that therapists from a vari- feeling fatalistic and pessimistic. Sometimes I found
ety of theoretical backgrounds can effectively utilize myself experiencing these feelings of helplessness or
this approach. For example, therapists within a narra- feelings of depression. Sometimes what was happen-
tive context may choose to utilize circular questions. ing, in essence, was I was picking up all of the family’s
Gil: Certainly. Therapists can do whatever their orienta- stuff—all the negativity. Now I know that family thera-
tion might be. Whatever theory they bring into it they pists do not use the word countertransference but you
can use play to think about things in that particular way. can use different language and just say, “This is the
Therapists simply need to add a few more things. I have impact of this family on me.” I thought to myself, the
a lot of the theoretical material around family therapy. child must feel this, the child must feel down and heavy.
All of the different theories—structural, strategic, and One of the things I know to be true about play is that it
narrative—hold the same philosophies and techniques frees energy up. It does get you physically involved and
when it comes to play. So now it’s a question of having it does release energy. How about that as an option? In
so much more available to me where I can pick and some ways, I said, “I can’t continue to do this. This is
choose from various aspects of play and family therapy. way too heavy. It’s bringing me down. I’m going to try
Families just come in with so many different needs and something else.” So there’s that little part that has to do
different ways of being, different ways of asking for with me, and it relates to my theoretical beliefs. I know
help, different ways of everything. the value of play. I really treasure what it can provide
Thorngren: It seems like by opening yourself up to this not only for children and families but for me as well. I
whole other realm, you have all these other options. As thought, “I’m going to try this out and just see what
if you’re never going to run out of ways of relating to happens.” I didn’t want to get stuck in specific tech-
children and their parents. niques of some theory but just try it out. I am pleased
Gil: That, for me, is just wonderful. I always feel like, well, with the results. It has been amazing that we’ve been
there are always other things I can do. I never feel, in able to do play therapy in even the most tragic situa-
that sense, stuck per se because I always think to tions, the most stressful of situations, the most crisis
myself, “I wonder what this incredibly structured rigid oriented, where most people would go, “Oh well, you
family would do if I asked them to do a scribble can’t play with a family that’s having that problem.”
together or if I bring the puppet in and ask them to do a Well, you can practically do it with any family having
family puppet story.” It is energy. It’s like when I talk any problem because, in fact, if you believe it to be true
about art techniques and the fluid paints as opposed to so will the family. If the family does respond differ-
the more restrictive materials. It’s the same kind of ently, make different contact and relate to each other in
thing. I see verbal therapy as more restrictive because a different and new way. It is incredibly and potentially
it’s confining. Even when we speak, we use words in a beneficial. If, in fact, what we’re trying to do in therapy
certain kind of way. You think I mean something; I is give people an improved sense of well-being then this
think I mean something else. There’s so much more certainly contributes to that. The research on play says
opportunity to err in communication, but much more that play actually releases endorphins so people actu-
important, it’s the control around what I do and don’t ally have physiological well-being as a result of it. So
say. But when you move into some of the other areas of why not open up that channel, that opportunity for peo-
play, families don’t have as much control. That is what I ple to communicate both intentional and unintentional
find so exciting. meaning.
Christensen: It really is like many other therapeutic
approaches. Therapists possess their personal philoso- SPECIFIC ISSUES
phies about people, life, and counseling and use their
beliefs to guide them in their relationships in therapy. Thorngren: You mention that play is appropriate for prac-
You are basically proposing an approach that allows for tically all families. Have you ever encountered families
families and therapists to communicate their thoughts that were resistant, had special issues, or had dynamics
and feelings through various materials and mediums of that prevented them from finding play in family therapy
self-expression and play. to be of some use?
Gil: Right, exactly! It really is about who the therapist is as Gil: I believe that play is useful when dealing with most
a person that guides what they do with their clients. populations on various issues. I have many examples of
That is what theory is all about. Theory guides thera- how this approach was effective with people who were
pists in how they relate to people. Therapy is simply guarded, resistant, and didn’t want to deal with thera-
another relationship. pists. Therapists were part of the system in their eyes
Thorngren: It seems as if you are talking about multiple because they’re mandated to be there. I’ve given them
influences. What are your ideas about reciprocal influ- puppets or artwork and suddenly you’re on a different
ences between therapists and their clients? plane. The fact that they’ve shared that experience of

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98 THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES / January 2000

expressing themselves through play, sand, or art makes Gil: That brings forth something that I wanted to talk
them, in a way, have contaminated feelings of positive about. In general, I believe that it all comes down to the
regard. fact that children just tend to be low priorities across the
Christensen: It seems to relate to your thoughts about the board. I find that therapists must be advocating for chil-
influence of clients on counselors, and vice versa. I got dren to have therapy, permanency placement, to be
that from you through your workshop and even from heard, and for their schools to respond to their social
talking to you now. You exhibit passion, excitement for, and emotional needs. I think that this is a necessary
and a genuine belief in utilizing play in family therapy. aspect for all therapists, everywhere you go. This is
Are you simply suggesting that therapists somehow mainly because I believe that people think of children
express their passion for play therapy through their as not necessarily that important. That is a pretty sad
interactions within their family sessions and that will commentary. I was working at the county when I went
influence parents to give play a chance? to school at George Washington. One of the things that I
Gil: Absolutely. That is what I say to people when they’re found out was that I was going to have to do a
going to start family play therapy. I tell them, “Get com- practicum, which meant internship. It was just such an
fortable enough with it so that you believe it because if interesting experience; it was one of the best experi-
therapists can’t convey to families that this is important, ences because my art therapy supervisor, Barbara
valuable, and useful then they are just not going to be Sobol, is one of the most gifted human beings I’ve ever
able to sell it in that particular way.” met. I learned so much from her. I talk to her all the time
Christensen: Those seem to be some key things. In terms and she’s one of the best gifts that I’ve been given.
of using this approach with any population, you were Barbara was very interested in working with the
talking specifically about the severely traumatized. Are schools and we were trying to figure out what to do. So
there any specific differences or techniques that you’d she got together a little art therapy mobile unit, went to
change based on a given issue or population? the schools, and said, “Look, I can come in before
Gil: The only group that I’ve really been concerned about school and/or at a convenient time and work with kids
is people who act out in a violent way. Now that’s the in groups and do some art therapy stuff.” She started
only place where I’ve found that sometimes this mate- and it was great to watch them. She’d go out there with
rial actually loosens them—“loosens” is the best way to her little art cart and she’d have these kids do these
explain it—to the point that whatever internal controls amazing projects. Now one of the projects Barbara
could be there aren’t there. Sometimes that leads to taught me, which has become one of the projects that
negative themes being introduced or the themes actu- we’re doing with the kids in group therapy, is some-
ally translating it to negative or dangerous behaviors. thing called “Build a Safe Environment.” I love this
So that’s one place where I’m pretty careful. As a mat- because the kids are given an animal to choose from.
ter of fact, somebody called me the other day to consult They get in a basket of animals and they choose an ani-
on a pretty violent guy. I said, “You know, play just mal. Then they create an environment for the animal.
might not be the best place to go. He needs so much They use poster board, wood, telephone spools, and
more control and structure and he doesn’t need to be wire. Some of their environments are just hilarious.
emotive. He needs to actually ‘tuck it in’.” Play some- That safe environment process has, again, been one of
times frees things up as opposed to helping a person the most incredible things I’ve seen people do. It’s
learn to control inappropriate displays of anger. The about mastery, it’s about creating a reality, and it’s
other thing is that in terms of using this, it’s not some- about learning from the child what is and what is not
relevant or dangerous or safe. It’s just an amazing thing.
thing that I use in every session. I’m pretty careful or
So she would go out and do the safe environments with
purposeful about when I introduce it. I always tell peo-
the kids in the schools. Barbara was doing it as a pilot
ple ahead of time, “I am a family play therapist. Now
project and the hope was that everyone would think of it
what that means is I will work with your child and I will
as useful; then they would encourage therapists to come
work with you but there are going to be times that I’m
back and she could get funding. Likewise, at the last
going to invite some of your family members to come in
APT conference, there were people doing sand therapy
together. There are going to be times when I’m going to
in the schools and I think this is a really important thing.
invite everyone to come in. Sometimes when we come
I mean, it’s just like all those medical units that are in
in you’ll talk, sometimes, however, I’ll ask you to do the streets now. People won’t come to get their vaccine
some play activities.” I do that with all the families I work so let’s go out to them. I think the same thing could be
with. I want them to know ahead of time so that they said of play, particularly play in family therapy. I think
won’t be surprised by any of my invitations to play. we really need to make it available to people who ordi-
narily wouldn’t seek it or get it.
SCHOOLS Thorngren: You are suggesting that we almost advocate
for play and family therapy.
Christensen: What are your thoughts about how you could Gil: Absolutely. A woman that I worked with named
employ play in family therapy in the school system? Monica McGoldrick who created the materials on

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Christensen, Thorngren / PLAY IN FAMILY THERAPY 99

ethnicity and family therapy runs a play therapy insti- it start?” You look at not only the content of “Well, it
tute in New Jersey. So she and I hooked up and my inter- started with this point” but also “Who started it?” Now
est was in teaching family therapists play techniques. I we are looking at the systemic parts of who creates the
basically approached her and she approached me. I story, who participates, who’s left out, are some of the
asked, “Could I go and teach family therapists and inte- ideas better than others, does someone say, “Oh, that’s
grate a play therapy component into a standard family terrible, let’s do this.” Does someone acquiesce, com-
therapy program?” We have been doing that for a little ply, dominate, and so forth. Next we get into the content
more than 2 or 3 years now and it’s been just an amazing in terms of: What is the story about? What is this story
experience. Now one of the students from that program trying to tell us about this family? Essentially we
who graduated has started a family play therapy project free-associate about these aspects. We free-associate if
within the institute. That is very exciting, especially the story has a problem, which it usually has built in.
because initially many of the family therapists were How did that get resolved? Is there a resolution? Is it an
hesitant. They would say, “I just don’t get it.” They did- adaptive resolution? Then we go back into, “What do
n’t quite understand why we were teaching them this. you think this might suggest about interactions
Slowly but surely I’ve won over probably 80% of them. between family members and/or issues that are most
There is still a group that believes that it is too expen- prevalent?” It’s a whole process that we go through and
sive, “I don’t feel comfortable with it, I don’t work with my hope is that they will begin to be able to do this pro-
kids, I don’t want to work with kids, and so forth.” cess on their own.
Christensen: You really focus on empowering both fami-
SUPERVISION lies and therapists.
Gil: Exactly. In terms of supervision, that is when I started
Thorngren: Would you please address supervision issues going into having these little sheets of paper that would
related to play in family therapy? have them organize their thinking about what they were
Gil: The Family Institute is very much team oriented and looking at. Then when they got to the portion about
so what we do there is have families come in where we queries, that meant, “Well, what questions would you
do a variety of play therapy activities with them. The pose now?” The building of questions is a really impor-
person who is bringing the case in either does it alone or tant piece because you have to stay so much within the
I do cotherapy with them. Then after the family leaves, metaphor and you have to try to understand. I look for
we process all the information. We use those little whether or not my supervisees can state what the story
sheets that I mentioned developing before. Like the one is. Can they list at least five family dynamics that they
for sand tray where I take them through a process of, observed? Can they tell me something about the struc-
“Let’s start at the very beginning. What is it about what ture of this family, the hierarchy of this family, or any-
this person or family chose that’s interesting to you?” thing else from watching them? I have my little list
Then the example that I always give is this woman who that’s called “observational categories” that just goes
chose to be Goldilocks on one hand and an innocent through a lot of those structural therapy aspects. Also in
bystander on the other. That’s a perfect example of how terms of the story, there are other dimensions like: Is
much is communicated. Goldilocks was obviously an there symbolic play? Is there a level of enjoyment? Is
adventurer, explorer, intruder, and very assertive about affect available? Those kinds of things. Then basically
getting her needs met. Then this woman was also an they summarize this material and then come out with,
innocent bystander. I then ask my supervisees, “What “Well, here’s what we’ve learned from this.” The next
does that tell you right away about this woman?” Obvi- piece of it is how does this relate to the therapy? How do
ously, she’s holding a lot of ambivalence about how you translate this into something therapeutic? The ther-
much she can go out into the world and how much she apeutic questions or dialogues would need to be
needs to retreat. Well, this was a woman with phobia. focused on the unique needs of the family at hand. In
We don’t initially jump to what the problem is. I other words, supervisees need to list themes to start
encourage my supervisees to just “listen to the story. with. Then they must make decisions about what we
Let’s see what you can learn.” So we go through every- were going to have to bring. We, as a group, formulate
body’s puppets and what that might suggest and some- the questions. I like to have people working in tables
times there’s association between puppets. For exam- and making a list of questions. I am very invested in
ple, the match story, where the father was a judge, the supervisors or trainees and in having them trusting and
girl was a policeman, and the other girl was a lawyer. respecting their intuition. For example, “What is your
You have to wonder what that suggests about this fam- gut reaction?” That’s really important. You trust that
ily system. I suspect a need for authority, external material and it always has meaning. Likewise, if you
authority, a need for maintenance roles, looking at what have a reaction to the story or the puppets, it always has
is right and wrong. So there’s probably punishment and some kind of importance. So, yes, it is a process that’s
strict consequences. That was also interesting in terms similar to what I encourage the families to do, and that’s
of this particular family. Then, after we’ve gotten the basically the training process.
symbols, I say, “Okay, tell me about the story. How did

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100 THE FAMILY JOURNAL: COUNSELING AND THERAPY FOR COUPLES AND FAMILIES / January 2000

Christensen: You appear to utilize a supervision process countertransference but there is an impact of each
that parallels your approaches to therapy. You also group of people that you work with. I can get just as
seem to lean toward group supervision. Is that your pre- much from my clients as they can get from me. I just
ferred mode of supervision? marvel at people and it isn’t so much about me. I keep
Gil: Definitely. Group supervision provides numerous saying this to people because they tend to project things
benefits over just individual supervision. Just the reac- on me. But there’s nothing special about what I do.
tions of “What does this suggest to you?” The more There’s a trust that I have. It is a hope that I feel and con-
people you have, the more ample opportunity you’re veying that to people goes a very long way. They begin
going to have to gather information and ideas. What trusting me and they find what they need to within
you were saying earlier is a really important piece to themselves. That has been very comforting to me to
me. I don’t always articulate this but concerning know that it isn’t about theory or technique. It is to some
cocreation, in that I’m not an expert telling people extent more about who you are and what you do in your
what’s going on or what they need to do to fix it, I’m relationships with others. It is also about being recep-
really someone who helps reflect back to them what tive to what children and families do and who am I with
they already know, in both supervision and therapy. them.
Thorngren: We both appreciate your time and energy!
CONCLUDING REMARKS Thank you.
Thorngren: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about,
such as any special issue or anything that you haven’t REFERENCES
already addressed?
Gil: Let me think about that. Well, once again, just backing Gil, E. (1991). The healing power of play: Therapy with abused children.
into something I said earlier that’s been so helpful to
New York: Guilford.
me. I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons
Gil, E. (1994). Play in family therapy. New York: Guilford.
why I haven’t had severe burnout or haven’t stopped
doing this is because I have integrated all these different Gil, E. (1996a). Systemic treatment of families who abuse. San Francisco:
aspects that have therapeutic value, not only for the Jossey-Bass.
families that I work with but for myself as well. I feel Gil, E. (1996b). Treating abused adolescents. New York: Guilford.
better when I work with puppets. I feel better when I O’Connor, K. J. (1991). The play therapy primer: An integration of theories
work with those aquariums. I get so excited by what and techniques. New York: John Wiley.
people produce and the level of interest that I have is Peterson, L. W., & Hardin, M. E. (1997). Children in distress: A guide for
remarkable. The value that I place on that is just amaz- screening children’s art. New York: Norton.
ing and all of that I find just so stimulating. I think it is
really important that if you find yourself, especially
working with resistant populations or court mandated Teresa M. Christensen is an assistant professor in the Department
people, and you’re feeling like your job is really hard of Educational Leadership, Counseling, and Foundations at the
and draining, etc., there’s probably something you can University of New Orleans.
do to add and restore yourself, to access energy, and to
encourage yourself to have different experiences. Jill M. Thorngren is an assistant professor at Montana State Uni-
Again, I know family therapists don’t like the word versity, Bozeman.

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