Relationship Parenting: The Filial Therapy Approach

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Published: 07th July 2010
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Parent training is perhaps the most powerful tool in touching the emotional and behavioral lives of children, parents, and families. Although most parent training programs focus on behavior management for children who act out, if a childs behavior is primarily a reflection of emotional turmoil and unmet needs, behavior controls will not have a lasting impact. It becomes necessary to provide an intervention that touches the child at emotional and relational levels, while empowering the parent to be the change agent for the child, themselves, and their relationship. Filial therapy does just this.

As parents look to Christian therapists and to Christian parenting literature, they are often met with a focus on the childs behavior and the need to provide appropriate discipline. Discipline, while psychologically appropriate, is incomplete. With some popular parenting approaches, there is potential to equate discipline with behavioral control or punishment. The concept of discipline as a relational or teaching process can easily get lost. Labeling a child as "strong-willed or a "problem may in fact be an accurate interpretation. Nevertheless, such labeling can result in the justification of the use of force to bring about compliance.

This leads to adversarial parent-child interactions, not relationships noted for understanding, valuing and honoring one another.1 In the parent training process, Sweeney asserted that, "rules without relationship equals rebellion.2 Parents can employ the most researched and developmentally appropriate rules of parenting and behavior management, but if the parent-child relationship is poor, the result will involve minimal compliance and potential rebellion. It is relationship that creates the environment for emotional expression and problem solving. Filial therapy helps develop this relationship and provides this opportunity. DANIEL S. SWEENEY Filial therapy is a parent-training program focused on relationship.

The goal is essentially to promote the parent-child relationship through the training of parents in the use of basic skills employed by child-centered play therapists. The parents use the play therapy skills to conduct weekly 30-minute special playtimes in the family home. It is within the special playtime that the parent-child relationship is developed or strengthened. It is upon the foundation of this relationship that discipline and limit-setting can truly be effective. This article will provide a very brief overview of filial therapy, with the hope of whetting the appetite of the interested reader to pursue further study and training. Since filial therapy is essentially the application by parents of child-centered play therapy skills, a quick review of play therapy will be given.

Play Therapy

Play therapy is based upon the fundamental truth that children do not communicate in the same way as adults. Adult communication requires both verbal abilities and abstract thinking skills. Children do not communicate this waythey communicate though play. The basis for doing play therapy therefore, is to honor children through entering their world of communication, rather than forcing children to enter the adult world of verbalization. Play therapy can be defined as a "dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child (or person of any age) and a therapist trained in play therapy procedures who provides selected play materials and facilitates the development of a safe relationship for the child (or person of any age) to fully express and explore self (feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors) through play, the childs natural medium of communication, for optimal growth and development.3 There are crucial elements contained within this definition. Play therapy involves a dynamic interpersonal W relationship.

Just as relationship with Christ brings us into spiritual healing, it is relationship that is the basis for therapeutic healing. Without question, therapeutic relationships should be dynamic and interpersonal. The play therapist should be trained in play therapy procedures. Providing play media in a talk therapy session is not play therapy. Attending a brief workshop or reading a book about play therapy does not make a play therapist. Training and supervision are not only essential, but also an ethical necessity. Purposefully selected play materials should be provided, not simply a random collection of toys. As with any form of therapy, it is the responsibility of the play therapist to establish both a safe, therapeutic environment and relationship. Children who already feel disempowered and out of control need to be given the opportunity to fully express and explore self. It is within healthy self-exploration that clients, child and adult alike, can discover an accurate self-image, a process that should lead them to their Creator. As already noted, play therapy allows children to use their natural medium of communication, play.

Filial Therapy

In the filial therapy approach, parents are trained in a small group format to use child-centered play therapy principles and skills in home play-sessions with their own children. Developed by Bernard Guerney and his colleagues,4 filial therapy was an innovative approach to the treatment of emotionally disturbed children, because it depended upon the parents of these children learning to conduct play sessions at home and to become the agent of therapeutic change. The underlying rationale for filial therapy was based on the hypothesis that if parents could be taught to assume the role of therapist, they could conceivably be more effective than a professional because the parent naturally has more emotional significance in the life of the child. Secondly, the anxiety symptoms learned by the child in the presence, or under the influence, of parental attitudes could be more effectively unlearned or extinguished under facilitative parent- child conditions.

Guerney suggested other important advantages to using filial therapy: (1) more parsimonious use of the therapists time; (2) avoidance of fears and rivalry that develop in parents as the child decreases dependency and develops attachment with the therapist; (3) reduction of guilt and feelings of helplessness that often arise when parents feel obligated to abandon the problem to an expert for resolution; and (4) avoidance of the problems that otherwise arise when parents do not develop appropriate responses to new child behavior patterns.

Overview of Filial Therapy Process

Filial therapy with parents is ideally conducted in a group format. The uniqueness of parenting experiences creates a dynamic through which a shared group experience becomes invaluable. It is inevitably reassuring for parents to know that others in the group struggle with similar issues. The groups should generally be limited to six or eight parents. Larger groups are cumbersome in the need to handle the dynamics of the group and in providing education and appropriate supervision of parent-child play sessions. The filial therapist, therefore, must be trained and experienced as both a play therapist and group therapist.

He or she needs the competency in play therapy because filial therapists show play sessions, and then train and supervise parents in the conduct of parent-child play sessions. Since it is recommended that filial therapy with parents be conducted in a group format, the filial therapist must also be trained in group facilitation and dynamics. Landry developed a 10-week model of filial therapy, which is an ideal format for both therapeutic and church settings.5 The 10- weeks should be considered a minimum because of the substantial amount of material covered. The duration is crucial so parents can be supervised adequately in their skill development and proper support can be given to parents who are frequently dealing with emotionally charged parenting issues. Additionally, this 10-week format adapts well to the Sunday morning or mid-week meeting schedules that many churches utilize for discipleship and training, and can be adapted to the "quarter system that many churches use for Sunday school. The structured parent-child playtimes and the supervision of these playtimes (parents are asked to videotape at least one session and bring it back to the group for supervision and review) are a unique element in the filial therapy process.

While many parent-training methods involve role-playing parent-child interactions, filial therapy takes this further into supervised experiences. The filial training process involves discussion and interaction. Whereas parents F are often looking for answers from the "expert, the filial therapist should focus on facilitation rather than direction and dispensing advice. It is a helpful group dynamic for group members to be able to brainstorm and offer their own solutions to typical child care problems. Homework should be given each session and reviewed at the beginning of the subsequent sessions. There are specific homework assignments in the 10-week filial format, which reinforces the training, and reviewing it reinforces the material covered. Parents are encouraged to ask questions and take notes.


Filial therapy has been well researched and shown to be effective with a wide variety of parent and child populations. Research shows that filial therapy is effective in reducing children acting-out behaviors, increasing children selfishness, increasing parental empathy and expression of acceptance, and reducing parental stress. In a recent meta-analysis of play and filial therapy studies, filial therapy was shown to have an impressive effect size of 1.06, well above that for other child therapy meta-analyses.6 For a complete list of filial therapy research, the reader is referred to www.centerforplaytherapy. com. In addition to its therapeutic value, filial therapy provides pastors an intervention for a wide variety of their parishioners.

From life-cycle transitions and adjustment responses for parents and children, to trauma and other mental health challenges, families experiencing a broad spectrum of issues can benefit from filial therapy. The church community should provide parent-training, which parishioners and non-church attendees can benefit from. Filial therapy provides pastors with an alternative intervention offer, which bases improvement for families on the fundamental scriptural emphasis on relationship building. Take help from telephone counselor .

Filial therapy is a research-proven parenting training program to enrich parent-child relationships. The basis for the success of filial therapy is the focus on the relationship. God the Father has always desired a relationship with us, His children. Relationship is so important that Jesus Christ entered our world to provide through Himself a new way for us to be re-connected to God the Father. So filial therapy provides parents with an opportunity to be re-connected with their children through the very same empathy and relationship modeled by Christ.

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