Therapy provides a troubled child a place safe from physical and psychological harm, where she can let her guard down sufficiently to explore her thoughts, feelings, and life. This type of therapy believes, along with the child-centered approach, that simply coming to know what she truly feels, thinks, and does can help a child to feel and function better, that is, to live in a more authentic way. But looking in the mirror with the lights on is difficult. By proving ourselves safe and trustworthy over time, we steadily convince the child that she has found someone with whom she can pursue and share this self-exploration.
But establishing a safe and accepting atmosphere isn’t enough. The psychoanalytic play therapist strives to “therapeutically hold” the child. Parallel to the way that a mother holds her baby, the therapist holds the patient—not physically, but psychologically. The therapist absorbs the excite- ment and distress that the child’s mind and body cannot bear on its own. Moment by moment the therapist confirms the child’s experience. This witnessing fosters the child’s trust in what she herself feels and perceives, leading to her evolving a more genuine self, a keystone of psychological health. The therapist’s noticing and admiring the child’s steps forward renews enthusiasm and joy for her own growth and the risk-taking it requires.
Most of all, the therapist empathically listens and responds to the child. Being understood deeply, having your perspective heard, is itself one of the most powerfully moving experiences you can have and counters the painful, if common, sense of being unheard and ignored. In addition to being reparative in itself, the therapist’s empathic stance facilitates clinical interventions that acutely meet the patient just where she is emotionally, neither falling flat nor overwhelming her.