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Filial Therapy: Children with Behavioral Problems Case Study

Just like adults, children are able to develop emotional and behavioral issues that may result from various impacts. Usually, such impacts come from the environment surrounding a child on a daily basis – their family. Young children tend to spend most of their time interactive with the family members who play a critical role in shaping their views, attitudes, habits, and behaviors.

That way, the presence of conflicts within a family is most likely to make an impact on a child’s psychology and cause problems that would require professional treatment and therapy. This paper explores one of the most common therapies applied to children with behavioral problems – filial therapy. First of all, the theoretical aspect of this approach will be described in detail; secondly, a case study of a child with behavioral problems will be provided; finally, the case will be analyzed from the perspective of filial therapy applicability and ways of assessing and addressing the child’s issues.

Filial Therapy Overview

Filial therapy is also known as play therapy; naturally, this approach is based on play and can be applied in many cases to resolve various issues in children, as well as adults. When used on children, filial therapy does not include the child alone but focuses on the relationship between a child and their parent (Landreth, 2012). For young children, play is a natural activity that serves as the source of learning and explorative experiences (Thomas, 2011).

It is beneficial because it provides a child with an ability to develop such skills as creative problem-solving, practical and critical thinking, flexible decision-making, social interaction, and collaboration (VanFleet, Sywulak, & Sniscak, 2011). Most importantly, play is enjoyable for the children and ensures that all the learning and adaptation is practiced in a pleasurable and fun environment which improves the effectiveness of the activities.

In filial therapy, a child is an unrestricted participant who is provided with space (a playroom) and equipment (toys and materials) necessary for play and is allowed to use them in any way desired (Filial Therapy, 2016). An adult is the one to analyze the play, become a welcomed participant, and view the activities as a child’s way to communicate (VanFleet et al., 2011). The role of the therapist is to educate the parent and guide them through the play sessions.

Case Study

Parker is an 8-year old student whose teachers repetitively report his behavioral issues. According to the teachers, the child is inattentive during classes, tends to “zone out” in tense learning situations (such situations involve performing individual tasks in front of the class and completing tests with complex assignments that require focus). The teachers also notice that Parker has a habit of repeating what they call “a routine” – a series of movements and behaviors that form a constant sequence: he starts scratching his head and hears, then rubbing his nose, and doing something that looks like a chewing motion with his mouth.

Sometimes, the sequence stops at this point, but in some situations it extends to the next couple of movements – Parker winds his arms vertically in front of himself one elbow on top of the other, and having his arms in this position clasps his hands together, reaches his mouth and knocks his knuckles against his teeth. This series of actions was quite noticeable, and when it began to occur regularly, the teachers felt the need to discuss it with Parker’s mother Jen, who is in denial about Parker’s need for therapy and a resolution of his behavioral problem. Jen is now a single parent – half a year ago she divorced her husband who worked as a truck driver, did not spend much time at home, and had a drinking problem that caused frequent arguments in the family. Since the divorce, the man has never come back to see Parker. Jen believes that her son’s repetitive behaviors and school issues are not serious.

Filial Therapy Applied to the Case

Children live in the world where all the leadership belongs to the adults. Filial therapy helps create a setting where the child is offered freedom and can assume a leadership role. Moreover, play empowers a child to try on different scenarios (be a doctor, a parent, a superhero) and communicate their issues unconsciously (Crenshaw & Stewart, 2015). Children find it difficult or even impossible to express their feelings verbally in an analytical manner; that is why filial therapy enables a parent and a therapist to observe a child express him or herself via play and learn about the issues a child deals with (Rye, 2008).

Segment of Play

Parker and Jen are invited in the playroom.

Jen: Parker, look, what a fun room! You can play with anything you like in here. Let’s play!

Parker: (picks up a toy truck) I want to be a driver.

Jen: And who am I going to be?

Parker: My daughter

Jen: Okay. And where do we live?

Parker: (points at the truck) We live in here, I always take you with me when I go to work. This truck is like a house inside.

Jen: Don’t I need to go to school?

Parker: (freezes for a while) You do. But when you are at school, I work there as your teacher.

Jen: You are both a driver and a teacher? What do you teach?

Parker: Art.

Jen: What about math?

Parker: No, I don’t like math! (begins to scratch his ears)

Jen: (distracts him) Oh look! There are crayons and paper right here! Would you like to teach me some art?

Parker: I can teach you how to paint with your fingers. We will paint a house.

What the Segment Shows: Relations

This segment shows interactions between a child and his mother during the play. A child willingly adopts the role of an adult copying his father who was a truck driver. He communicates a desire to spend more time with his mother saying that he always wants to take her with him to work and to school. Another sign is his desire to paint a house – the boy feels alone; this is the cause of his anxiety.

School (especially classes that require concentration) adds to his stress and causes him to zone out or engage in his compulsive behaviors. When math is mentioned, Parker automatically starts his “routine” – it is his stress coping mechanism. Also, in the play there are only two characters; this means that the boy might have no friends among peers. Noticing the compulsive behavior, Jen distracts Parker with a subject he enjoys; also the play helps her understand what her son likes and dislikes at the emotional level.

Parker’s therapy should begin with a conversation between the therapist and Jen in order to convince her that both her and Parker would benefit from the sessions, and explain the valuable insights she might gain. Besides, it is important to educate the mother about OCD, how compulsions work, why they appear, and how they can influence the child’s life.


Crenshaw, D. A. & Stewart, A. L. (2015). Play Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory. New York, NY: Guildford.

. (2016).

Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Rye, N. (2008). .

Thomas, G. (2011). .

VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. (2011). Child-Centered Play Therapy. New York, NY: Guildford.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Filial Therapy: Children with Behavioral Problems'. 13 August.

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