Psychodrama with Children

The way children play

„A child is very serious when playing“ is what Rousseau says in his novel „Emile“. Johan Huizinga also referred to the meaning of each play in his book “Homo Ludens”(the playing human-being). He says that children are very good at constructing their own reality. They choose the appropriate roles themselves and are able to find their own solutions for their everyday problems.

Children play, choose subjects, places, and roles. That is the way they express themselves, develop, and have fun. One can say that this is the origin of psychodramatic therapy. Jacob L. Moreno, the founder of this method, based his psychodramatic work on this kind of play and included the basic steps and elements of human development. Moreno saw in the play an aspect that can be explained as follows: People who play experience a new possibility to enter into their own creativity and thus take an active part in creating their own way of life. That is why symbolic play and symbolic acting are very important in the therapy of children. It creates affective and cognitive flexibility and fields of learning (for children). Modern neuroscience confirms how necessary emotions and the active involvement of the body are for any change of behavior and coping strategies.

Help playfully

Psychodramatic therapy of children differs profoundly from treating adults with this method and demands a lot of the psychodrama therapist. Children communicate differently from grown-ups. Playing is their instrument of expressing their inner world and they use symbols to do so. One can say: Playing is their „royal way“ (Freud) to express the unconscious. They search for their possibilities by „Doing and Acting“. They test their inner images by acting them out and bringing them to the appropriate stage.

Children rarely do have words for the painful relationships they suffer from. You can understand those children by entering their world by playing with them and getting into contact with them by taking a role in their play. It gives them a kind of protection from being overwhelmed by their current problems. Playing children show a high level of creativity. They find roles with aspects of fun and convenience instead of falling back into their roles of suffering. They become lively beings and can feel their livelihood and realize themselves as active human beings. The child can also control the action of getting close to the dreadful experience he/she has had. This gives a feeling of safety and protection and he/she can start to experience self-efficacy again. In the play, the child can control and influence the events. By doing so and by being creative livelihood and self-confidence come back.

„Children are children, are children, are children“. This saying describes the experience that children of all cultures and languages like to play – all over the world! The play is an instrument of communication and the world of symbols gives room for expression in safety. It`s a fact that children who can not express themselves verbally are very well able to communicate with their surroundings by playing.

From the neurobiological point of view researchers find out that when children are playing, there is reduced oxygen consumption in the amygdala due to reduced activity of the central nervous system. This region is active when we are anxious.

The Neural networks are activated and linked in order to meet the challenge of the game. The reward centers in the brain start to fire, and pleasure and joy of life are felt. Children aged 6 should play between 7-8 hours a day. This means children are mostly calm and full of joy when they are playing.

Inventors of the method

We owe it to the German psychodramatists Alfons Aichinger and Walter Holl for the development of a method of applying psychodrama to the therapy of children. In the 1970s, they developed a method in their counseling center in Ulm in which the therapist and the child played together.

After unsuccessfully trying to apply the methods of adult psychodrama to children, they developed the child psychodrama group therapy, suitable for children aged 5-12.

In recent years, Alfons Aichinger’s psychodrama with children approach has been adapted especially for individual and family therapy. In the Part Work, animal figures and the symbolic game depict children’s symptoms and problems as inner proportions and needs, and accompany the children to clarifying and conciliatory processes.


To learn how to act and behave in a group can only be learned in a group. This simple statement of social learning describes the necessity of this kind of setting for therapeutic work. A great part of the development and socialization of a child takes place in groups; of special influence are peer groups. They provide a natural resource for their development. Based on this, psychodrama group therapy for children has been successful for years. In this setting children learn to make arrangements with each other to regulate their joined action in a common „play“. The arrangements may limit the individual freedom with respect to others, and at the same time, they create a common ground and a frame for the benefit of all. The experiences made over the years show that children accept those rules and mostly respect them. They appreciate what they gain, a frame of security and reliability, where conflicts can be acted out in a safe way.

Individual Therapy with Children

A significant difference to group therapy with children lies in the absence of other children to join in the drama or two therapists. So roles are given to intermediary objects such as animal figures or dolls in order to provide children with a chance of expressing their problem in a scene. The therapist generally also has to take on different roles and bring them to life.

The play and the constellation of the self-chosen symbols (animal figures) give the child an opportunity to present his intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts. This is processed using the familiar basic psychodrama techniques of mirroring, role exchange, and doubling, albeit in a slightly modified form.

The basic needs of children

This approach assumes that problems with identity are caused by ongoing or a particularly strong frustration with basic psychological needs. Psychological and behavioral problems can arise when a person attempts to deal with this frustration and tension in a maladaptive and “unhealthy” manner.

The psychologist Klaus Grawe (2004, 2007) names 4 important basic needs of people and Alfons Aichinger adapted these needs to the children play:

  • Need for attachment: “I want to be close to other people and to have someone I can rely on.”
  • Need for orientation and control: “I don’t want to be helpless, but to get my life in order. I need to have control over my environment and relationships in order to achieve my goals.”
  • Need for self-esteem: “I want to be proud of myself! I want to believe that I am a person of worth and value.”
  • Need of pleasure maximization and pain minimization: “I want to seek and experience joy, I need to avoid painful and unpleasant things.”


Understanding Disorders in Children

According to psychodrama’s understanding of disorders, symptoms are described as failed or inappropriate acts of adjustment or adaptation:

“A disorder in experience or action has its origin in acts performed in order to adapt to living conditions, which at that time could not be adjusted to in another way. …”
(Schacht 2010, p. 89).

This corresponds approximately to the basic needs which Aichinger repeatedly emphasized as being core motivations for “symptoms” or (disturbing) behavior, which also form the pillars of the psychodramatic work being outlined here:

Adjustment acts by children to deal with the situation in family and school can be multi-layered and primarily need to be seen as coping strategies or an approach to the problems of a threatful life environment. A child’s acts of adjustment happen ‘with good intentions in an overwhelming situation which can be neither understood nor controlled, where strong feelings of fear, powerlessness, anger, and grief prevail.

So let´s start to play together…………………….