• Hany Cheng

How Can Filial Therapy Help My Family?

Monday, August 28, 2017-Hany Cheng


Filial therapy is a therapeutic approach to help children who have experienced emotional, behavioral, and social issues. Essentially, parents are the direct and main person who will receive “therapy”, in this case therapy is referred to as psycho-education or training in the treatment process.


In filial therapy, parents are trained to be therapeutic agents by the therapist and have to engage in weekly 30 minutes non-directive play with the target child. Without the parents’ active and committed involvement, filial therapy cannot be successful.


RELATED: What is Filial Therapy?


There are two major elements in filial therapy, namely play, and parents as therapeutic agents are meant to meet the following four goals as stated by Guerney (1964).


Goal 1: The encouragement of allowing the child to fully self-determine the activities within a certain limits.


Gray’s (2012) definition of play is an activity that:

  • is self-chosen and self-directed;

  • is intrinsically motivated;

  • is guided by mental rules;

  • is imaginative;

  • involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind (p. 355).

Self-directed play or self-determined activity is essential in the process of filial therapy because children learn to develop sense of self, independence, self-regulation, and the ability to make choices. The freedom to choose in the play session also promotes creativity and self-expression (Baggerly, C.Ray, & Bratton, 2010).


Unfortunately, recent generations of children are immersed in structured, scheduled, stressed, and adult-directed activities (Belknap & Hazler, 2014). In Malaysia, parents are familiar with 'tuition', that means extra classes to tutor students on academic subjects off-school hours.

Most urban children have started attending tuition classes since they are seven years old. Tuition is one of the examples of scheduled, structured, and adult-directed activities. Furthermore, the trend of sending children to enrichment classes has become popular in the urban areas of Malaysia.


A child who has packed schedules has lesser time to engage in self-directed play. Hence, this has become the first goal in filial therapy to ensure parents are with their children to engage in self-directed play for at least 30 minutes weekly.


Goal 2: Parents get to increase empathic understanding towards the child’s needs and feelings.


In the training sessions, the therapist focuses on increasing the parents’ sensitivity to their children, acceptance of thoughts and feelings understanding of their child’s emotional needs, reflective listening, emphatic responding, identification of feelings, and therapeutic limit setting (Baggerly et al., 2010).


When parents grasp the idea to enter their child’s world non-judgmentally, the connection of bonding occurs and leads to the third goal to happen.


Goal 3: The child feels accepted by parents.


Through filial play sessions, parents learn to connect to the child’s feelings and needs, to merit and respect the child’s autonomy, and to respond delicately (VanFleet & Topham, 2011). Child-parent relationship is enhanced through this unique context where parents work deliberately and consciously to create a safe space for the child to heal and to grow acceptance, enabling the healing and growing progress (Topham, G. VanFleet, 2011).


Goal 4: The child learns to see and accept responsibility and consequences for his actions.


Although self-directed play is the core activity during the play session, parents are taught to set boundaries to foster appropriate and acceptable behavior (VanFleet & Topham, 2011).


For example, an angry child keeps throwing the toy and nearly breaks it. It is an opportunity for parents to educate the child’s self-regulation through setting the limit or rule, as such that toys are not meant for throwing and breaking. Instead, the child can direct and release his anger to a pillow or object that is harmless to him and others or the environment.


If the child insists on breaking the toy, he needs to bear the consequences of the broken toy and the play session shall end. With the constant reinforcing of healthy boundary setting, the child learns the responsibility of taking charge of his own actions.


Filial therapy is conducted through a special playtime and the parents carry it out accordingly with the skills they have learned. We'll be featuring the first 2 skills soon, so stay tuned!



Hany Cheng is a licensed mental health counselor. She is passionate in helping families to enhance their parent-child relationship through filial therapy. Currently, she is pursuing her PHD in researching the topic of applying filial therapy in Malaysia. She is also the co-founder of Havan Clothing - a social enterprise that empowers children's artwork through fashionable clothing.

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