5 Ways To Utilize Therapy Dolls For Depression In Children

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Feelings of sadness or grief can be common and inevitable parts of life. In some cases, these feelings can get so intense that they seem to overtake a person’s life. In cases like this, the person may be experiencing depression. While therapy and medication may be the two most common treatment options for depression in children and adults, mental health professionals are researching new, alternative ways to treat the condition. One such option is the use of therapy dolls, which can help some people overcome symptoms and process their emotions effectively. 

Is your child experiencing depression?

An overview of depression in children

Depression is a mood disorder that can significantly impact how a person thinks, acts, and feels. About 4% of children (approximately 2.4 million) between the ages of 3 and 17 had been diagnosed with depression by 2020. Research has shown that children as young as two can experience depression.

For a person to be diagnosed with depression, they likely have experienced symptoms for two or more weeks. Symptoms of childhood depression may include:

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • A decrease in energy or increased fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping; too much or too little
  • A loss of interest in previous hobbies
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • “Acting out” behaviors like oppositional defiance or disruptiveness
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, loss of appetite, and digestive issues

What are therapy dolls?

Therapy dolls are typically life-like dolls provided to people living with cognitive or behavioral conditions. These dolls may look like newborn babies, so it can be difficult to distinguish the difference from a distance.

Therapy dolls may be best known for their use as a therapeutic intervention for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Still, doll therapy is becoming an increasingly common treatment for various mental health conditions, including depression in children.

Benefits of using therapy dolls in treating depression

Therapy dolls can be a valuable part of other treatment plans for depression. Experts have estimated that about 50% of cases of unsuccessful treatment for depression can be attributed to patients’ noncompliance. Individuals with depression may stop treatment because they don’t like the side effects of a medication or don’t believe treatment is working. Financial barriers may also play a part in the decision to stop treatment. 

Therapy dolls can be a viable treatment option that may circumvent many of these concerns.

For the millions of children who experience depression each year, therapy dolls can help them find ways to express and regulate their emotions.

Therapists can use them to help kids act out and process distressing situations and distract children from their negative thoughts. 

Children living with depression can also learn new coping strategies and problem-solving skills using therapy dolls. One study of children between the ages of four and eight showed that playing with dolls can be equally beneficial for children of any gender.

Therapy dolls aren’t just an option for children; they can also be used to treat depression in adults. For instance, therapy dolls may help parents experiencing mental health challenges after a miscarriage or stillbirth process the trauma of losing a child.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

5 ways to use therapy dolls for childhood depression

Below are five ways therapy dolls can be used to treat childhood depression:

1. Expressive therapy

In expressive therapy, children living with depression can use creative expressions such as art, dance, and music to process difficult emotions. Children may not be able to fully verbalize how they’re feeling, so this type of therapy can give them another outlet for their thoughts and emotions. 

During drama therapy, a type of expressive therapy, therapy dolls can be used to help children create stories and act them out. Children may participate in role-playing or puppetry using their “babies”.

Getty/MoMo Productions

2. Emotional regulation

Initial studies on doll therapy have shown that it can reduce agitation and aggression while increasing engagement. While this research mainly focuses on the role of therapy dolls for dementia patients, the benefits might transfer to other mental health conditions such as depression, for instance. A child can use their therapy doll to soothe themselves by rocking the baby or giving it a firm hug. 

3. Building connection and companionship

A child experiencing depression may feel isolated and alone, but therapy dolls can help them build connections and companionship. The child can build a relationship by pretending that the doll is their friend or their baby.

In addition, research shows that doll play can increase social-emotional intelligence. By using therapy dolls to practice social skills, a child may feel more prepared to interact with their friends or classmates to build relationships with peers. They can learn how to navigate conflicts and respond in situations where they may feel uncomfortable, for instance. 

4. Distraction from negative thoughts

Child psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “Play is the work of children”. As a child engages with play using a therapy doll, they may be able to shift their focus away from the negative thoughts associated with their depression. 

Just as an adult at work can be completely wrapped up in their job-related tasks, a child at play can become so consumed in their game or activity that there’s little space left in their mind for negative thoughts.

5. Managing elevated levels of empathy

People with depression may have normal or even elevated levels of empathy to the point where they often place unrealistic blame on themselves for the distress of others. Using therapy dolls, caregivers and therapists can help children develop a healthy level of empathy. 

For example, the therapist could have a doll “accidentally” make a mess and work with the child to act out how they would respond, encouraging them to have the same level of empathy for themselves as they do for the doll.

How to choose the right therapy doll

Choosing the right therapy doll for your child may depend on factors such as their age and interests, for example. One child may enjoy using a doll that looks like a real baby (known as a reborn doll), while another child may benefit more from a doll with abstract features. 

Although doll therapy traditionally involves using realistic-looking dolls such as reborn dolls, it’s up to a child’s therapist to decide what types of therapy dolls for depression will best support their needs.

Using therapy dolls alongside other treatments

Therapy dolls are just one of many viable treatment options for childhood depression. A mental health professional can work with a child’s caregivers to design a treatment plan best suited for a child’s individual needs. Below are some other options that can help children experiencing depression.


According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a combination of psychotherapy and medication is most effective in treating moderate to severe depression. Caregivers, health providers, and the child can work together to determine what medication will best meet the child’s needs.

Other therapy options

The American Academy of Family Physicians also recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy to treat mild childhood depression. During CBT, children may learn how to identify harmful thoughts and modify them to be more helpful. In interpersonal therapy, a child can learn how to improve their communication and conflict management skills to experience healthier relationships.

Is your child experiencing depression?

Treating depression through online therapy

Therapy is often recommended in treating childhood depression, and not just for the child. Sometimes, parents need additional help managing their own emotions and mental health challenges so that they can provide the best emotional support for their child. Still, finding a provider who can work around the schedule of a busy parent might be challenging. 

Online therapy can offer an alternative route to finding suitable mental health professionals. By choosing to work with a provider virtually, you may be able to choose from thousands of specialized therapists worldwide. In addition, you may be more likely to find someone who can work with your busy schedule, so that you can attend therapy at your convenience.

Moreover, online therapy has proven to be as effective as traditional therapy. A recent study found that online acceptance commitment therapy, in particular, could be beneficial for parents of children with chronic conditions like depression. 


Millions of children experience depression every year, and it may benefit them to explore different treatment options with the guidance and expertise of a mental health professional. The use of therapy dolls is a treatment option that can help a child experiencing depression regulate their emotions, build connection and companionship, and find a distraction from their negative thoughts. In addition to therapy dolls, therapy and medication may also help treat childhood depression. Parents of children with chronic conditions may also benefit from therapy. To learn more and to connect with an online therapist for support managing your child’s mental health, reach out to BetterHelp.
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