Using Children’s Interests in Therapy.

Often the most powerful work happens in therapy when we engage with the child around their interests and integrate these into our work.  Utilising interests is often recommended in the context of motivating and engaging children. Therapists are often encouraged to either use a child’s interests to reward them after they complete a therapy activity or integrate the child’s interests into the therapy work.  The latter can be particularly useful as it often increases a child’s motivation to complete a task that might otherwise be less engaging.  For example, a child who has an interest in Pokemon might engage more in learning about feelings if the therapist is able to use Pokemon characters as the basis for facilitating some discussion around emotions.  There are however, some other great reasons to explore a child’s interests.

Firstly, expressing an interest in a child’s interests enables us to respectfully connect with them.  It prioritises the child as an individual and demonstrates our desire to get to know them beyond all the ‘problems’ they’ve been brought to therapy for.  Part of approaching this respectfully for me is about letting the child lead the discussion here.  It’s not about sharing my knowledge on the topic or trying to research the area and impress the child with my understanding.  Rather by listening, allowing the child to lead the discussion, and expressing a curiosity I have the opportunity to find out what they love about a given area and how they engage in their interest.  It helps me understand, for example, whether they are playing an online game for the purpose of social interaction or because they enjoy another aspect of the game, such as the construction involved or the strategic aspect of the gameplay.

Understanding how a child engages with their interests can be a helpful way of understanding how they approach their world and helps me think about what might help with the challenges they are facing.  For example, for a child who loves drawing I’m likely to incorporate drawing into our sessions and consider how drawing might be used to support them to regulate and express their feelings at home.  The way a child engages with their interests is also often telling and can help us understand how best to support them. For example, a child who loves to colour and spends a lot of time ensuring they choose the correct colours and stay neatly within the line might struggle to manage mistakes or respond flexibly and could benefit from opportunities to explore less structured forms of art.

Perhaps most importantly though a child’s interests can help us better understand their values.  Values have an important place in our work, particularly from an ACT framework.  Using values can however be challenging when working with children and adolescents.  We know that children and adolescents are often still developing their values and this is part of the challenge.  Values cards can prompt some thought around this and provide children with some language around values, however in practice I find that a much more authentic response comes from exploring a child’s interests.  For example, being curious about a child’s extra curricular activities might lead you to understand that they love spending time with their friends and you might come to understand that it’s important to them to feel connected to others.  Another child who undertakes similar activities might love the movement involved and there might be a value they place on activity.

Parents don’t always understand their child’s interests and this can be associated with frustrations and challenges at home.  Encouraging parents to spend some time engaging in that interest with their child is often helpful.  Engaging with a child around their interest conveys a respect for the child’s viewpoint and, when parents approach this from a position of curiosity and openness, allows them to better understand their child’s perspective.  Sometimes this creates an unexpected point of connection for children and parents, with parents finding to their surprise that they too enjoy the interest.  Other times it helps parents to appreciate what their child enjoys and makes it easier for them to find alternatives.  For example, children who enjoy the construction aspect of online games might be engaged with Lego or drawing architectural designs.  This latter aspect can be particularly useful if the interest is something that the parents find problematic, such as screentime,

Often as adults we tend to dismiss children’s interests and attempt to channel them into interests that we value.  Honouring what they actually enjoy however can be extremely valuable.  Sometimes doing so creates movement in therapy that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to facilitate.  When we can help children articulate what is important to them we can begin to think, using an ACT perspective, about how they can move towards what is important to them.  One of my clearest experiences of this was working with an adolescent boy with a long history of mental health difficulties and poor school attendance, who had disengaged from school. Taking the time to understand his interest in a news item he’d watched about the elderly helped us uncover a deep respect for older people and an enjoyment in the slower and simpler interactions he had experienced with his grandparents.  Pushing this young person through school had been met with little success, however when motivated by his own values he was able to engage in an aged care course and this helped us to map out a plan going forward for him.

In summary, taking the time to respectfully explore a child’s interests in therapy can be extremely helpful, so lean in and get curious.

Dr Fiona Zandt, Clinical Psychologist

Sometimes when working with lots of different children remembering who is interested in what can be challenging.  You might find our Personal Profile template helpful in this regard.  You can fill it in as you get to know a client and look back over it when you need a reminder.  Some clients may like to fill it in with you.  Click here to download the Personal Profile for Children template.


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