Getting To The Heart Of The Matter With Children And Adolescents

Back To Thinking Outside The Box

By Neal Brodsky LMFT

I am a psychotherapist trained in family systems who uses the power of play to help young people create greater balance, meaning and ultimately more pleasure in their lives.

Symptomatic issues identified by parents who bring their young people ages 5-18 for help have included and are not limited to: attention-based imbalances such as ADD/ADHD, opposition and defiance, obsessive behavior, phobias, anxiety, depression, delayed development, problems around food and sleep, and a variety of learning issues.

An intake form is first filled out by one or more parents or primary caregivers. Information requested includes parental stressors prior to conception and birth. Because the developing fetus lives in the neurochemical “soup” of the woman carrying them, I want to know about the pregnancy and also about any attachment challenges for the infant after birth. Was the child breast-fed? When and how did toilet training happen?

Before seeing a child, I meet alone with parents so they can be as forthcoming with me as possible. I want them to see the therapy space, imagining the varieties of play that their child will be engaged in without the intrusion of anxious interactions with that child. This first session also prepares parents to be involved in monthly adults-only parent meetings where we will review progress and continually co-create goals for the child and family system. I may ask parents, especially with younger children, to participate in “relational sessions” where they will be interacting and possibly playing with their child in my presence. While the majority of sessions are held one on one with individual youngsters, I sometimes involve siblings, especially later in the therapeutic work after a strong therapeutic alliance has been built with the primary child or adolescent client.

Parental, educational, peer and societal expectations are often very difficult for young people to handle and therapy can build resilience and appreciation of their own developing core qualities from leadership to generosity to courage. Young people often come into therapy from family systems in need of healing. Difficulties may include parental conflict or inter-generational trauma. Symptoms displayed by children become embedded and sometimes exacerbated in such families. As the young person has fun through freeing forms of play, a new language of “possibility” is invented. The “relational language” of the young person begins to change, supporting growing independence, empathy and confidence.


The work I do with children and adolescents employs movement, breathing, and expressive arts using clay, drawing, and a deep sandbox which kids can use to symbolically dig themselves out of their own predicaments while viscerally experiencing the depth of who they really are. This happens through the alchemy of Jungian-inspired sandplay as youthful clients symbolically out picture their inner dramas, building “worlds” in the sand they will populate with archetypal, human and animal figures.

Young people coming into the therapy room for the first session often appear ungrounded as they stumble in or look they are trying to hold themselves together, arms wrapped tight around their upper torso. Many first need basic instruction on diaphragmatic breathing. I ask them to hold a small ball with their hands against their belly and to push it out with the force of their inhale. I have noted very stressed kids taking only shallow breaths which are restricted mainly into their upper chest. Witnessing what could be the formation of characterological blockage, we can teach children to breathe into and through the defense, minimizing what could later show up in adulthood as patterned holdings of musculature. We can train a budding nervous system to move towards full function rather than the state of flight, flight, freeze or faint that blocks access to higher brain function and flexibility of social-emotional response.

I use a range of equipment in my office to help young people get to the heart of what they are feeling and need to process. Each of my therapy rooms has one or more large exercise balls which young people often roll and bounce on. Therapeutically, my aim is to raise their level of vibration and thereby bring energy and consciousness that adds to aliveness and integration of body, mind and spirit. Also, there is an ongoing “hitting contest” in my practice for younger children in which the current leader has hit a foam cube 1300 times in one session with a bataka encounter bat. Children, mainly under the age of 14 like to battle me in a war of soft batakas and I sometimes challenge timid kids to knock a bataka out of my hands with the one they are brandishing. I tell parents, "better here with me than at home or school." Through such work, young people learn to recognize and actually contain all of their feelings rather than repressing them and acting out..

Deeper process within individual sessions also includes “narrative play.” Younger children draw images of “monsters” and experiment with embodying them, freeing what they have locked inside. Children also learn to vocalize, to experiment with volume and character by playing with a variety of “voices” along with the practitioner. Such play contributes to a more flexible sense of self and greater power in the realm of self-advocacy.

My goal is to disclose and inform parents about what they can expect. Committed “buy-in” is needed to a course of treatment that will take time, often from six months to two years. So we need to look at anything that could interfere upfront such as financial or other factors. As the symptoms of young people are relieved, parents need to be aware that underlying issues in the family occasionally surface which the symptomatic behavior of the young person in the family masked.

I am continually moved as I engage in the deep process of healing with young people and their families. It's truly a privilege to witness their courage in "getting to the heart" of matters that formerly pained them, moving more joyfully forward into a brighter future they will now create.

Neal Brodsky is a Holistic Psychotherapist licensed in Marriage and Family Therapy. He maintains offices in both New York City and nearby Connecticut while serving individuals, parents and couples worldwide online along with his wife Judy Gotlieb, LMFT