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How game therapy helps hidden youth?

Play Therapy: A Communication Channel that

Opens Up the Inner World of Hidden Youths

A lot of people believe that mahjong is a game that can reveal players’ personalities. Similarly, through play therapy, psychological counsellors can gain insights into children’s inner world, helping those who are unable to express themselves to open up. It also enables adults to address the unspoken challenging issues that their children face. The board game “Life”, which is designed for psychotherapy, is a simulation of life’s different stages. Through playing “Life”, a hidden youth who had skipped school for many months, regained his motivation and was willing to step out of his home and attend classes.

According to a research study conducted by the University of Hong Kong, there are approximately 16,000 to 48,000 hidden local youths (ranging from 12 to 29 years old). Dr. Vinci Cheung states that regardless of the various reasons that cause these youths to be socially withdrawn, play therapy is effective in helping those between 9 to 16 years old. Dr. Cheung indicates: “Adolescents between 9 to 16 years old can have many views and ideas, but are unwilling to express them openly. Hence, they choose to be agreeable with others in order to hide their true thoughts. They are also often unwilling to spend time going out with their parents….”. These and other various challenges youths face during their adolescent years can affect the development of a positive self-image.

Play Reflects Our Inner Thoughts and Benefits the Development of a Positive Self-Image

Pratising art and craft such as drawing, clay modelling, and playing board games such as UNO, Monopoly etc., are play therapy techniques suitable for adolescents between 9 to 16 years old. The games do not need to be played according to their original rules. Instead, they could be child-centered, i.e. the children set the rules of the games.  Dr. Cheung points out that play therapy can reveal a lot of withheld information through the various symbolic representations exhibited by young clients. They include the clients’ thoughts, their relationships with family and friends, their perceived self-image, and issues that they are concerned with or do not care about etc. During play therapy, a counsellor makes observations and converses casually with the clients about their concerns in a relaxed manner in order to understand the clients’ inner feelings and emotions. With a better understanding, the counsellor can then work with the clients to resolve their concerns, and also help them identify and work towards developing a positive self-image.

Hidden Youth Stepped Out of the Home and Returned to School

There is a case of a 14 years-old male student who studied overseas but had been skipping school for a number of school terms. He spent all his time in his bedroom, turning his life upside down. During a trip back to Hong Kong on vacation, his mother decided to seek a counsellor’s help to address his behaviour. The counsellor made a home visit and brought along the board game “Life”.  “Life” is a game that mirrors our life, including making life choices such as decisions on education and employment. During the game, the boy appeared excited and happy while he experienced various life stages, such as choosing a University course, taking examinations and graduating. He initiated to have another session when the game ended, so the counsellor took the opportunity to invite him to play at the counselling centre to try out other games. At the end of the visit, the boy obliged unexpectedly when his mother suggested that he walked the counsellor out of the door. He changed his shoes to step out of the home and chatted about school as he walked with the counsellor.

Two days later, the boy turned up at the counselling centre for the playdate and chose to do sandplay. Among the available dolls, he picked a motherly figurine with an apron on and a young student figurine. Both figures symbolised that he had a simple view of the world. The challenges he faced were due to his learning difficulties and a lack of motivation. After the playdate, the counsellor made another home visit, hoping to further support the boy. In another game of “Life”, the boy chose “scientist” as a profession, giving the counsellor a chance to discuss with him about the field of study for his tertiary education. At the end of the home visit, the counsellor gave his mother suggestions on ways to motivate him. She could help him develop a sense of achievement by assigning him with small tasks to accomplish. Such tasks could be tidying up his room, taking care of his daily living routine, helping with housework etc. When the school holidays ended, the boy was willing to attend classes.

In summary, through observing the symbolic meanings exhibited in a simulation of life during play therapy, adults gained insights into the unspoken struggles of the 14 year old hidden youth. As a result, the youth received timely support to overcome his challenges one step at a time, and in the process, gained courage and motivation to face his future.

(Note: The case mentioned has details modified to maintain client’s confidentialty.)

Some Factors that Contribute to Youths’ Worries and Concerns (Excerpt)

  1. Socializing-related issues:
    The switch in desiring affirmation from the family to that from the peers.
  2. Feeling pressured to do well in school:
    This comes from the youths being more “face” conscious when starting secondary school or, due to poor self-image.
  3. Attitudes towards the opposite gender:
    As youths go through changes in the physique, they become more conscious of what the opposite gender may think of them
  4. Feeling stressed about their future but unable to explain their predicaments to their parents.
  5. Self-image and self-assertion of their competency:
    Not knowing how to balance their personal strengths and weaknesses in relation to others’ views and expectations about them.

The Companions
Dr. Vinci Cheung