FOCUSING AND PLAY THERAPY
(Folio V, 2 1986, p. 63-67)

George Neagu, Swanson Center

I would like to share my efforts to adapt focusing to Play Therapy. Focusing is the crucial internal approach which occurs in every successful psychotherapy-case regard-of modality, according to Gendlin (1981). He and his colleagues at the University of Chicago discovered what successful patients do and what unsuccessful patients do not do. The good news is that Gendlin has developed a method which can be taught to persons who do not naturally have the ability to focus. Gendlin‘s experiential approach can be done by an individual alone or with another person and is a method which can change the way one lives, or experiences a problem. This change is a bodily change and is a welcome shift from the sense of being stuck or owned by the problem.

To date, literature regarding focusing centers on work with adults or adolescents. No literature, to my knowledge, has surfaced as to ways focusing can be used in play therapy. Can the steps involved in Focusing be adapted to children? At what age levels? Can children be taught to focus? Is the crucial determinant for successful therapy the same for children as for adults? It is too soon to answer these questions although the application of focusing to children is occurring and soon one may expect a growing body of literature reporting results. This article is intended to call attention to this new technique in the hope that it will stimulate others to explore its possibilities in working with children.

For readers not yet familiar with focusing, it is useful to review Gendlin‘s description, and six steps, or movements, necessary to do focusing. He states it is the process which follows getting in touch with one‘s feelings. It is a process in which you make contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness. This contact requires attending inside your body, especially to unfamiliar, unclear sensations not yet distinctly formed. This is what Gendlin calls t felt sense, the body‘s sense of a particular problem or situation. .It is not an emotion, like anger, sadness, etc. In focusing, bodily sensing is never clear at first.

To help a person focus Gendlin outlines six steps. They are:
1). Clearing a space. This step involves listing all the problems which tense a person, stresses which stand between the person and a sense of well being. There is no attempt to solve these problems just a listing.
2). Getting a felt sense of the problem. Ask which problem hurts the most, which is the worst. It is important not to analyze the problem, but to stand back and determine how, in a bodily way, it all feels.
3). Finding a handle. What is the quality of the felt sense? The person finds a word or image which best describes the gray one senses the problem.
4). Resonating the handle. This movement checks the word or image which best describes the experiencing.
5). Asking. Usually, Gendlin points out, the fourth step offers a little shift or relief, but not enough to change the problem. This step involves staying with the unclear sense by using the handle. Let‘s say one feels „ jumpy“ inside, then one asks, „What is there about this whole problem that makes me feel jumpy?“ One does this more than once allowing sufficient time for the felt sense to shift. Time allowed for this is vital.
6). Receiving. Welcome whatever comes in a friendly way, at a little distance from it. Gendlin advises one to allow a space for this felt sense, to sense it, and just be with it.

I have used this approach with bright seven and eight year olds in play therapy modifying communication to be consistent with the child. To illustrate, in Step 1 I may say (after establishing sufficient rapport and if the child‘s needs to do something else do not compete): „Let‘s play Complaint Department. You tell me all the things you don‘t like or that made you mad, things that bother you. Each time you come we‘ll tape your complaints.“ With a little encouragement, children enjoy this task. After he exhausts all his complaints they are played back to him, and Step 2 is completed by asking the child to pick the complaint that bothers him the most. Alternatively the therapist could list all the complaints, read them back and have the child make clay balls or cut out paper circles which he places next to each problem to indicate the ‘size’ of that complaint. In Step 3 the therapist might ask directly, “How does all that (the complaint which feels worst) feel inside you?” Or, “How does your boy feel inside when you think of that?” (Focusing questions are usually open ended). A variation would be to invite the child to draw or paint a picture of how he feels inside when he thinks of that complaint. Sometimes both painting a picture of the problem and a picture of how the problem makes him feel helps the child gain some distance. In addition he can be asked, “Does the picture match how you feel inside tight now?” If he says, “not exactly” then ask him how he needs to change it so it will match. If there is no need for changing the picture, encourage him to use words to describe the feelings represented in the picture. If the child responds to a problem from his list or in his picture by saying, for example, that it feels “a lot of Wavy, very wavy” inside, the therapist invites the child to sit quietly and say to himself “a lot of wavy.” Then quietly ask him if that is the way he feels inside, like “a lot of wavy, “ to complete the Step 4. If the words match the feeling, then move to Step 5 by asking the child what makes if feel “wavy”. Do not hurry. Encourage him to listen to the “a lot of wavy” inside as if he were putting his ear to the ground. In Step 6 the child is encouraged to keep listening to the all the body sound as if he had ‘Walkman earphones’ on and that is all he can hear. Encourage him to let the sound be loud but not so loud that it hurts, just loud enough to enjoy it.

After a while, the therapist may ask how far away he can put the paper circles or clay balls representing the problem, from him. I urge children to be literal about this and move the circles or balls as far across the room as possible.

In setting forth the theory and technique of focusing three cautionary notes are necessary. First, the relationship is more important than the technique and anytime the child wants to “break” from the game, it should be allowed. Second, the goal is to reach the inner felt sense of the problem in a bodily way and the strategies used to achieve this, such as the clay balls, pictures, etc., must not come to dominate the process. Lastly, it is crucial that the result feel good to the child.

Of course this technique is not all that occurs during the hour nor is it the only avenue which leads to change. However, I feel, based upon my efforts to imaginatively implement focusing in the context of play therapy that it is a new and important method for catalyzing beneficial changes. Much more exploration with this approach needs to be done.