The effect of Gestalt play therapy in addressing symptoms associated with trauma in children in middle childhood

Gestalt psychotherapyResearchNon-randomized controlled trials or naturalistic studyEnglish
Report - Downloadable here


The prevalence and impact of childhood trauma is so extensive that it has come to be known as a silent epidemic. Trauma affects children’s social, biological, psychological, and emotional functioning, which impede their ability for healthy self-regulation. Conventional therapies seem to have limited success in addressing the long-term consequences of trauma, arguably due to a lack of understanding the neurobiological impact of trauma and its effect on therapy with traumatised children. Researchers therefore recommend that therapists in the field of child welfare review the way they work with traumatised children, taking into consideration the neurobiological principles informing trauma interventions.

The goal of this research study was to explore the effect of Gestalt play therapy in addressing symptoms associated with trauma in children in middle childhood. As this study aimed to explore more efficient ways of working with traumatised children, applied research was conducted. A mixed methods research approach was utilised in order to combine the advantages of qualitative inquiry and quantitative evaluation. The researcher incorporated a triangulation mixed methods design, combining the single-system design and the phenomenological design at the same time and with equal weight. Data was collected at three consecutive points in the research process to determine the prevalence of trauma- related symptoms and how it changed over time. All three data-collection encounters entailed structured and semi-structured interviews, for which a questionnaire and interview schedule was used respectively. By means of purposive sampling, the researcher with the assistance of social workers from the children’s home, selected five participants between nine and 11 years, who presented with trauma-related symptoms, who have been residents of a children’s home for more than six months, and who were not involved in any other form of therapy at the time of the research.

The findings of the study were in accordance with literature on the impact of trauma, especially on children in middle childhood, and furthermore correlated with a Gestalt perspective of how trauma affects children. Trauma-related symptoms the participants experienced reflected affect- and behaviour dysregulation, alterations in attention and consciousness, distortions in attribution and worldview, and interpersonal difficulties. Though the participants’ responses to trauma, as well as to Gestalt play therapy, varied; improvement was noted in the overall prevalence of symptoms associated with trauma after implementation of the Gestalt play therapy process. In this regard, the research findings indicated a statistically significant improvement in the total prevalence of trauma-related symptoms the participants experienced before being exposed to Gestalt play therapy, as was confirmed by the qualitative findings.

It was concluded that Gestalt play therapy incorporates suggestions for trauma-informed interventions with traumatised children, and with its strong sensory base and utilisation of non-verbal and creative techniques, was an appropriate therapeutic intervention for addressing trauma-related symptoms in children in middle childhood. Based on these conclusions, it is recommended that professionals who work with traumatised children consider trauma-informed practices in the restoration of self-regulation through non-verbal and creative measures in the context of a safe and accepting relationship. As this research involved a small and limited study sample, further research that could add to the transferability of the findings is advised.

APA citation

van der Burgh, N. (2016). The effect of Gestalt play therapy in addressing symptoms associated with trauma in children in middle childhood. Pretoria: Department of Social Work and Criminology. University of Pretoria. Faculty of Humanities.