Shining a Spotlight On ……. Filial Therapy

Welcome to our new blog series called ‘Shining a Spotlight On….’. In this series we aim to bring awareness and insight into all things TESSA-related.

“The regulation and strengthened relationships that these sessions have brought to all of us has been indescribable and beyond doubt filial therapy is the single most positive investment we have made since becoming a forever family.”

For our first blog entry we have chosen to Shine a Spotlight on Filial therapy. We have asked an experienced Filial therapist to answer some questions from a therapists point of view and we have also asked a parent who has adopted to share some insight into their experience of Filial therapy and the impact it had on their family life.

” It is a lovely gentle but powerful therapy that can really help strengthen family relationships and help children process anything past or present that causes them difficulty, disturbance or dysregulation.”

So, sit back and enjoy this blog as we delve into the world of Filial therapy.

Therapists insights 

Tell us a little background info on yourself:

“So I always say I am a full time mum and a part time play therapist and as everyone knows that has proven to be a lot more challenging over the past year than ever before! I am an adopter myself so that is part of the reason why I am so passionate about giving adoptive parents therapeutic tools to use with their own wee ones. I started out studying international studies and youth and community work in Chicago, came here to Belfast as an exchange student and then went on to do an MA in Pastoral Care and Counselling through Queens. During my Masters dissertation I came across play therapy and read Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axline and it just captivated me and I knew I wanted to be a play therapist. You weren’t allowed on the play therapy course until you were 25 at that time though, so I did a counselling course first and started out as a children’s counsellor for the Oasis Counselling Service down in Dublin for 4 years, then went on to do the PG Dip in Practice Based Play Therapy at 25 and qualified in 2008. Before I even qualified as a play therapist I did a training in a form of filial therapy by Garry Landreth and Sue Bratton called Child Parent Relationship Therapy and it quickly became one of my favourite parts of my work. I got married in the middle of my Certificate and had a baby in the middle of my Diploma and moved here to Belfast with a 5-week-old one month before my final portfolio was due. I then worked for New Life Counselling for 10 years, which I absolutely loved, while running a small private practice from my conservatory. A few years ago, after we’d adopted our youngest, I just found it too difficult to balance the private work with the agency work and left New Life to become fully self-employed. I started offering filial therapy for TESSA at the same time and still find it to be the most rewarding way of working with families.”

Why Filial therapy?

“The form of filial therapy that I do, CPRT, has an incredibly strong research base and is a very effective intervention, particularly with regard to attachment and trauma. The beauty of filial therapy is that it uses the parent as the therapeutic change agent and the therapist as the model/consultant/coach for the parent. It is a skill for life and while I usually ask parents to choose a ‘child of focus’ for the duration of the therapy proper, once the skills are learned, they can be used with multiple children in the family. Because parents already are the primary attachment figures for the child and have the most emotional significance, the therapy often works faster than normal play therapy. It also offers the parent and child a playful experience of ‘mutual delight’ which is the core of attachment.”

What does Filial therapy entail?

“Filial therapy is based on 10 ‘lessons’ taught over 12 1-hour or 6 2-hour sessions of psychoeducation with the parent/s and therapist. Before COVID I alternated one psychoeducation session with parents with a shorter play demonstration session with the parent and child together but since COVID I have given longer consultation sessions with parents over Zoom while parents conduct their own play sessions with their children at home. During the psychoeducation sessions, parents are taught therapeutic play skills alongside some therapeutic parenting techniques and they learn to hold 30 minute therapeutic play sessions with their own children on a weekly basis. This has proven to be remarkably effective.”

Who is Filial therapy for?

“Filial therapy is for any family where children are struggling with emotional or behavioural issues or have experienced attachment issues or trauma. It is particularly helpful when there are issues in the child/parent relationship. Filial therapy works for single parents, co-parents, and any number of children. In a 2 parent family, both parents can attend, or just one can. It is a very flexible therapy and beneficial for all ages at least from 2-12, and for birth children as well as adopted ones in families where there are both.”

What kind of commitment does it take from a parent?

“Parents have to commit to either a 1 hour weekly psychoeducation session with me, or 2 hours every second week over a 12 week period, as well as a 30 minute play session with their child-of-focus on a weekly basis. There is some ‘homework’ to do in order to get the most out of the therapy but it is not very demanding or time consuming. Parents have to put together a ‘kit’ of therapeutic toys and resources to use for the sessions and this takes a bit of effort. Parents definitely need to have ‘head-space’ to do this form of therapy as it does take a lot of emotional attunement and regulation to ‘hold’ a therapeutic space for a child to release and process whatever they need to. After the therapeutic training finishes, parents continue to have the weekly 30 minute therapeutic play sessions with their children indefinitely so they also need 30 minutes a week per child to commit longer term.”

What advice would you give parents considering Filial therapy for their family?

“I always say that if I won the lottery I’d still be a play therapist and in my opinion filial therapy is the absolute best form of play therapy. I have used it myself as a parent when my own children have needed extra support at various times of their lives. It is a lovely gentle but powerful therapy that can really help strengthen family relationships and help children process anything past or present that causes them difficulty, disturbance or dysregulation. It is brilliant too because it can be adapted as a child gets older so can be used long term with children on an ongoing basis. In short, if parents are considering filial therapy for their family, I would highly recommend it.”

Parent insights 

Tell us a little background info on your family:

“We are a family unit of 4. We have adopted two siblings. We used this intervention for both children but it initially began to help our youngest son who has had major difficulties bonding with me, his adoptive mother.”

Why did you chose to avail of Filial therapy?

“I had not heard of this, TESSA advised me that it was available and suggested that it may be an appropriate intervention to meet our needs, especially in consideration of our son’s difficulties.”

What were your expectations/hopes for this therapy?

“To strengthen the mother son relationship. We endeavour to parent therapeutically; we have tried a number of interventions with varying degrees of success. We are willing to try new things to provide the best support for our children. Filial therapy was another thing to try, we were hopeful of course, why else would you try something? We were not prepared for the impact.”

Were they met and if so how and if not why?

“My first heart felt hug from my son!
Happier children.
Happier relationships.
Happier home.
Chill afternoons on the days of filial sessions as the children have released so much in their play.
The expectations were met and they were immeasurably exceeded. This is hard work and is a big commitment but it is so worthwhile. The regulation and strengthened relationships that these sessions have brought to all of us has been indescribable and beyond doubt filial therapy is the single most positive investment we have made since becoming a forever family. It was tough at times, you have to commit time, you have to learn new things in the lessons and you have to be prepared to hold the safe space. It is hard, it is especially hard not to bring your own big feelings to the play sessions, but it was hard to get here in the first place, it is hard to (be an adoptive) parent, it takes time and consistency to provide this HOWEVER we have not regretted it as the investment multiplied and has brought such joy and healing to our home.”

Would you recommend this type of therapy to other families that have adopted?

“Yes, yes YES!!!
This is now something that has become part of our routine. We definitely plan to continue since TESSA funding has ended, and will always be grateful for the initial investment made by them. We will certainly continue with this for ourselves in the long-term. This, for our family, was literally life changing. Perhaps it was a case of the right time, right intervention, right focus for us, I cannot be sure why it was such a magic formula but I do know it has been so powerful. We did throw ourselves into this fully and followed the advice given but we were not prepared for how positive an impact this had on our family unit. Soon after beginning I got my first, genuinely given, heartfelt hug, from our youngest sibling. Our eldest child has just got happier and happier as time has gone on. I don’t know if it will be so powerful for all families but I do know that there is nothing to lose and if you were only to reap a tiny bit of the results we did it will be a worthwhile thing to try.”

What do you wish someone had told you before commencing this therapy?

“To be fair I think this was all very well explained to me, as stated I had not heard of the therapy until Roxanne suggested that it may meet our needs, this sparked an interest and encouraged me to give this a go. Our therapist Keeley is unbelievably talented, I felt supported, reassured and comfortable on each step of this journey – if I had to give someone advice I would say, trust in the process, be honest, be vulnerable and ask questions – you will be fully supported on this journey.

Enjoy it!”


It is with many thanks to both our Filial therapist Keely, and to our wonderful parent who so honestly shared their experience of this therapy. 


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