Filial Therapy: Treating Social, Emotional, And Behavioral Concerns In Children

By Nadia Khan|Updated July 1, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Kay Adkins, LPC

While most types of counseling require the involvement of a therapist, filial therapy is a form of child-centered play therapy which focuses on the relationship between a child and their parents or guardians.

Designed explicitly for children between the ages 3 to 12, it consists of counseling sessions in which a child expresses themselves and learns through the act of play.

What Disorders and Issues in Children Can Filial Therapy Be Used to Treat?

Filial therapy was originally developed for the treatment of social, emotional and behavioral issues in children. Its application has since been widened, however, with the theories and practices of filial therapy being applied to many different issues facing children. Online therapy is also a great way of getting support for you as a parent.

Not Sure If Filial Therapy Is Right For Your Child?

Some of the conditions treated are:
  • Anxiety disorder - A range of conditions characterized by excessive worry and nervousness
  • Depression - Manifested very differently in childhood and adolescence than it is in adulthood
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) - Demonstrated as irritability, defiance and spitefulness
  • Aggression - Displays of hostility which may or may not be accompanied by violence
  • Inattention and hyperactivity - Including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Attachment issues - These usually develop before the age of 5 and can have long-lasting effects
  • Trauma - Including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from car accidents; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; and bullying
Explaining The Age Limits for Use

Filial therapy is based on helping children aged 3 - 12 through the use of imaginative play. The counseling may prove ineffective for children younger than 3 years old since they have not yet begun to engage in imaginative play. For children over the age of 12, they may no longer be able to engage in the kind of imaginative play where they freely express themselves. These teenagers are often best helped by taking a verbal approach to their counseling.

How Does Filial Therapy Work On Children?

Filial therapy is very different from most other forms of play counseling. Play therapist Nina Rye explains that in most types of play counseling, a counselor will meet the parents first. At that time, the child's developmental, behavioral, and learning issues, as well as the parent or guardian's involvement and parental techniques, will be discussed. After that, the therapist will work with the child over a matter of weeks or months.

Parents often ask questions like this about the treatment:

When should filial therapy be used?
Is filial therapy evidence based?
What is the focus in supervising filial sessions?
What are the different types of play therapy?
How does filial therapy work?
What is the theraplay model?
What are the benefits of filial therapy?
What is filial obedience?
What is Sandtray therapy?
What does a Gestalt therapist do?

Aside from regular progress reports, parents are hardly involved in those therapies, though communication between child and parents about the counseling sessions is always encouraged.

In filial therapy, however, the parents are present during every session and will even run most of the sessions themselves. In the first few sessions, they are taught directly and through observation how to engage in mindful play with their child. The counselor also guides parents in effective parenting methods and basic play practices. With the therapist assuming the role of coach, it is the parents or guardians who will then run the remaining sessions.

The general steps are as follows:
  • The counselor collects information on the child's development and needs, and observes the family interacting with each other.
  • Parents are given a detailed explanation of filial therapy - what it entails and what it sets out to achieve.
  • The counselor engages in mindful play with the child while the parents observe how the basic steps and skills are carried out.
  • Parents take charge of a play session with the counselor supervising their progress and providing feedback.
  • The sessions are conducted with one parent and one child at a time since each parent-child relationship is unique.
  • The sessions are moved to the family home but the parents still have the opportunity to visit with the counselor and discuss their concerns.
  • Parents may choose to join a support group to give and receive encouragement as the family continues to work through the issues they face.

The entire course of counseling normally includes 15 - 20 sessions of one hour each. It can span anywhere from 3 - 6 months, but may last longer depending on whether or not the family wishes to have follow-up sessions with the therapist. The counseling may also be conducted in a group setting (the benefits of which are outlined in the next section).

Just as with other forms of play counseling, in filial therapy, the counselor and parents will have regular meetings throughout the duration of the counseling. This allows them to assess the progress being made and to address any challenges or concerns. They may also discuss themes or patterns of behavior which become evident from the family's interactions during the sessions. It cannot be overemphasized that the entire point, purpose, and focus of filial therapy is to promote growth of all involved (not just the child) and to strengthen relationships in a family.

Not Sure If Filial Therapy Is Right For Your Child?

Benefits of Group Filial Therapy

The theory and methodology behind filial therapy developed in the 1960s by Bernard and Louise Guerney. Although it is quite often used with single families, the creators of filial therapy began it as group counseling sessions, involving groups of unrelated families. It is still practiced in this way in some instances.

During group sessions, each parent works with and focusses on their child but has the benefit of emotional support from being among other parents who are learning the techniques, just as they are. They can see how other parents employ the techniques and are better able to evaluate their own attempts. Parents also benefit from being able to give and receive constructive feedback within the group.

Techniques Taught

The methodology of filial therapy is described as "deceptively simple" by family therapist Dr. Risë VanFleet. "The ease with which the techniques in filial therapy are executed, go a long way in relieving any burden parents might feel with being the ones "in charge" of the sessions. By extension, it helps to allay their fears or concerns that they will not be able to properly run the sessions on their own.

The four basic skills taught to parents in filial therapy are:
  1. Structuring - The parent sets the stage, so to speak, by identifying the play area and its boundaries. They also decide what toys to include in the play area.
  2. Emphatic Listening - The parent learns how to be in tune with and reflect the emotions of the child. In other words, the parent discovers how to be more sensitive to the child's emotions and more empathetic when responding to them.
  3. Child-Centered Imaginary Play - The parent watches the child at play and takes part only by following the child's lead. This is called a non-directive play. The child is not pushed toward exploring any particular topic - not even the one's parents think may be affecting them the most.
  4. Limit Setting - The parent learns to set rules as to what will and will not be accepted during the play session. The rules should be few and not too limiting. For example, displays of aggression should be allowed, within reason.

Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Benefits of Filial Therapy for Both Children and Parents

During filial therapy, children have a safe and fun outlet to express themselves and communicate with their parents. Likewise, parents can increase their listening skills, which will help them better understand their children. As parents become more attentive and understanding, it helps to establish trust between them and their child. They also further develop their confidence as parents.

Within the setting of the play area, the child feels empowered to explore feelings they may not otherwise express. The parents get the opportunity to see and understand the underlying emotions which might be driving the child's behavior. Allotting this bonding time between each child and each parent gives parents the chance to pay special attention to a specific child. This can boost the child's self-esteem, reduce any troubling behavior, and better the relationship between the child and parents overall.

Filial therapy can also provide a suitable location for a child to improve his or her problem-solving skills through the act of play. It also gives the parents the opportunity to learn how to handle frustrating situations through the parenting techniques that they learned from the therapist in earlier sessions.

Other Means of Expression

Yet another way for a child or parent to express the tension within their relationship is to talk about these concerns using a talk counseling approach such as those that are offered through BetterHelp, an online platform that allows the client to speak to a professional through messaging, by phone, or by video chat.


Commonly asked questions found below:

How do you do filial therapy?
What makes a child filial?
What are the 4 types of parenting styles and their characteristics?
What is filial family therapy?
What age is filial therapy for?
What is the theraplay model?
What is the focus in supervising filial sessions?
Is filial play therapy evidence based?
What is Sandtray therapy?

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