Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Education


Counseling Psychology, Ph.D.

First Advisor

Nancy J. Carbonell

Second Advisor

Jerome D. Thayer

Third Advisor

Curtis J. VanderWaal


Problem. A growing trend among therapists is the use of play therapy interventions with adult clients to facilitate resolution of early childhood trauma and to promote emotional and spiritual growth. The purpose of this study was to explore the use and effectiveness of play therapy techniques with adult survivors of childhood abuse.

Method. In an exploratory approach, therapists were invited to participate in an online survey. Of the participating therapists, 21 agreed to a subsequent in-depth interview. The Theme Analysis for Word-Rich Data was used to identify themes from the interviews.

Results. Play therapy with adult survivors of childhood abuse was used by 64.9% of the participating therapists in this study. Common techniques used in treating adult survivors were: (a) journaling, (b) sand tray, (c) art, (d) anger management, (e) imagery, (f) role play, and (g) humor. A categorization according to intent or goal of therapy was noted. When the intent was to express feelings, the art and sandplay techniques predominated. When the purpose was to manage anger, more physical activities were suggested. Therapists were asked to rate the effectiveness of play therapy with adult survivors. On a 5-point Likert scale, with 5 - Very effective and 1 = Ineffective, 81% of the participants selected either a 4 or 5, with the mode and median both being 5 = Very effective. In a process called Theme Analysis for Word-Rich Data, six themes emerged from analysis of the qualitative interviews. These were: (a) non-threatening, therapeutic environment, (b) therapist characteristics, (c) successful techniques, (d) developmental perspective, (e) justification for using play therapy, and (f) spirituality. These six themes became the building blocks for the proposed therapy model presented in this study.

Conclusions. Results from this study suggest that play therapy is an effective approach in treating adult survivors. Further exploration is needed to formalize this approach and to empirically test its effectiveness. A conceptual model for practice is presented within this study to include (a) suggestions for therapist academic and practicum preparation; (b) suggested techniques; and (c) guidelines for theory development.

Subject Area

Adult child abuse victims, Adult child sexual abuse victims, Play therapy.

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