How Can Play Therapy Heal Preverbal Trauma

In this week's episode, I wanted to tackle a topic that often goes misunderstood in child-serving communities: trauma, particularly preverbal trauma. As child-serving professionals, it is crucial to understand the impact of preverbal trauma, which occurs before the development of language. Here are three main points to consider about how play therapy can help heal preverbal trauma.

Traumatic Experiences Are Stored in the Body

Research has shown that traumatic experiences, including preverbal trauma, are stored in the body. This concept is supported by works such as Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score and the theory of somatic experiencing developed by Peter Levine. Trauma experienced before a child develops language can still significantly impact them. The misconception that children "get over" trauma because they can't articulate it is false. Trauma is stored in their sensory and motor systems and can affect their development and behavior.

Play therapy provides a developmentally appropriate way to help children process these traumatic experiences. By using a theoretical model, therapists can guide children through the change process, allowing them to access and process their trauma in a safe and structured environment. This method is effective because it meets children at their developmental level, using play as a medium for healing.

The Role of Theoretical Models in Identifying Themes

Identifying themes within play sessions is heavily influenced by the therapist's theoretical model. These models provide a framework for understanding and interpreting the child's play. For example, a therapist using a child-centered play therapy approach will look for different themes than a therapist using an Adlerian play therapy approach. The theoretical model guides the therapist in recognizing significant behaviors, symbols, and patterns in the child's play.

By understanding these themes, therapists can make sense of the child's internal world and experiences. This process is crucial in helping children work through their trauma, as it provides insight into the underlying issues that need to be addressed. The themes identified in play therapy sessions offer valuable information that guides the therapeutic process and informs the treatment plan.

Making Sense of Themes to Guide Therapeutic Decisions

The ability to identify and make sense of themes in play therapy sessions is vital for effective treatment. In the article "Treating Traumatized Children: Somatic Memories and Play Therapy," the authors highlight how they used their theoretical framework to conceptualize the problem and guide their interventions. They walked through the stages of play therapy with a child who had experienced preverbal trauma, demonstrating how they identified themes and used these insights to make therapeutic decisions.

For instance, themes of power and control, nurturing, and safety may emerge in a child's play. These themes can indicate the child's needs and struggles. By understanding these themes through the lens of their theoretical model, therapists can tailor their interventions to address the specific issues the child is facing. This approach ensures that the therapy is responsive and effective, providing the child with the best possible support for their healing journey.


play therapy is a powerful tool for healing preverbal trauma. By grounding the therapy in a solid theoretical model, identifying significant themes, and using these insights to guide therapeutic decisions, therapists can help children process and overcome their traumatic experiences. Understanding and addressing preverbal trauma is essential for fostering health. 

For more in-depth learning on these topics, consider exploring my courses on case conceptualization, treatment planning, and play therapy foundations.


Spiel, S., Lombardi, K., and DeRubeis-Byrne, L. (2019). Treating traumatized children: Somatic memories and play therapy. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 18(1), 1-12. doi.10.1080/15289168.2019.1566974

y development and well-being in children.

Categories: : Case Conceptualization, Play Therapy, Play Therapy Model, Podcast, Progress Notes, treatmet plan