Meet play therapist and author Terry Kottman

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Terry Kottman has been a huge influence on my life since I met her, while attending her ACA workshop back in the 80s. Professionally, she helped me understand the Adlerian influence on my life, while personally, she has been a dear friend who is always there with a willing ear and a positive outlook. 

Terry is a prolific author and editor, and her work in play therapy led her to the development of The Encouragement Zone through which she provides play therapy training, counseling, life coaching, and fun. In recognition of her achievements, Terry was awarded the Association for Play Therapy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, one of only eight recipients of this prestigious award. 

For the last 30 years, Terry has been a friend and role model to me, and I’m excited to share our interview in this edition of Meet the Author.

-Deanne Gruenberg

Terry Kottman - Play Therapist

1.) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you initially become interested in the counseling field?

If I start really early, I would say my first clients were my mother, who had chronic mental illness, and my father, who was an alcoholic. My family was full of dysfunction, and I think I kind of served as the family counselor. So I always had an interest in the counseling field to try to keep myself and my younger brothers and sister safe.

I was a special education teacher—taught in a self-contained classroom for children who were severely emotionally disturbed who had behavior disorders. I was frustrated by the lack of counseling services the students in my classroom received. (Remember, I am old, so this was a long time ago before most school districts had elementary school counselors.) I was young, and I liked to go to school, so I started “shopping” for a PhD program where I could learn to do a better job meeting the mental health needs of my students. I went to classes in 7 different programs at 6 different schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I actually hadn’t ever heard of Counselor Education, so the first batch of classes I took were in social work and psychology. Then I kind of stumbled onto the Counselor Education program at the University of North Texas and decided that program offered classes that contained information that would help my students.

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2.) Was there a particular catalyst that influenced your interest in creating Adlerian play therapy?

I was in the doctoral program at North Texas, applying Individual Psychology with my adult clients in my doctoral practicum class, and loving how it was working for me. Adlerian theory explained so many of the things about people that had confused me when I was a child and a teenager, and I was loving being Adlerian. At North Texas, the expectation was that if you were working with a child, however, you would be doing child-centered play therapy, so I was trying to be a non-directive play therapist. My very first play therapy client gave me some extremely pointed feedback that suggested I was not really being myself in my sessions with her and that catalyzed my developing Adlerian play therapy.

She was a child who lived in a children’s home and as an intern part of my job was to go to the children’s home to pick her up and take her back to the clinic where we had her play therapy sessions. After about 8 weeks of me sitting very still in my chair, tracking her behavior, restating what she was saying, and reflecting her feelings, she told me she had a question for me: “How come you are fun and funny and lively in the car and in the hallway on our way to that room with the toys, but once we get in there, all you do is tell what I am doing (and I already know that), and tell me what I am saying (and I already know that too), and tell me how you think I am feeling (and you know I don’t like that)?” This created kind of an existential crisis in which I recognized that I was leaving my primary therapeutic tool (my self—my personality—my beliefs about people) outside the playroom. So, I set out to figure out how to create an approach to therapy that would allow me to express all of me and be based on how I saw people and how they change.

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3.) Tell us about a typical day in the life of Terry Kottman outside of the therapeutic field.

Because I have a rather non-traditional job (running a play therapy training center and maintaining a private practice), I have weird hours and a strange schedule. So…I work a lot most days—writing, planning workshops, developing new techniques, doing the registration for workshops, seeing a client, corresponding with people about workshops, conferring with one of my supervisees, etc. I also volunteer one day a week at an elementary school, doing play therapy.

The perfect day for me currently is a day in which I don’t have to work at all…on days like that, I might go for a walk in a local nature preserve with my husband, read a science fiction or fantasy book, work on making a mosaic or a piece of stained glass, cook something wonderful for my husband and son, watch my son play a video game, go on a date at our favorite coffee shop with my husband, or go out to lunch with a friend. Quite frequently, I might also be in a play at the local community theater’s children’s playhouse. Even though I say that I would choose to have some days “off,” I would still work with my play therapy kids at the elementary school—going to the school is the most fun I have every week.

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4.) How does Adlerian Play Therapy differ from other play therapy modalities?

I think Adlerian play therapy is different than other approaches to play therapy in a couple of significant ways. (1) In Adlerian play therapy, there is a great deal of emphasis on conceptualizing individual clients and custom-designing the play therapy intervention process for specific clients. It is extremely important to be adaptive to the needs of the particular client, so we do different things with different clients—depending on the client’s interests, the most comfortable way he/she expresses himself/herself, etc. (2) There is a strong emphasis in Adlerian play therapy on consulting with parents and/or teachers and including various family members in the play therapy process. (3) There is a unique combination of directive and non-directive strategies in Adlerian play therapy, depending on the phase of therapy, the personality of the therapist, and the needs of the client. (4) Metacommunication is a uniquely Adlerian way of interpreting what is going on “underneath” the obvious. Metacommunication is kind of an umbrella skill that incorporates a number of different techniques. It can involve reflection of feelings, questions, speculation about underlying messages, interpretation of the meaning of reactions or behaviors, and so forth.

By metacommunicating, the counselor can help children begin to notice and understand their own patterns of communication. Often children are not aware that they are reacting or communicating in a certain way. Even those who are cognizant of their communication patterns usually lack the abstract verbal reasoning ability to conceptualize what these patterns mean about them and their interactions. By commenting about what is going on (and frequently, what it means), the counselor can help children think more clearly about how and what they are communicating.

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Play Therapist Terry Kottman

5.) What ages of children benefit the most from Adlerian Play Therapy? When might Adlerian Play Therapy be contraindicated?

I work primarily with elementary aged school children and adolescents, though Adlerian play therapy can also be used with adults. However, many of my students also work with younger children, even three and four year olds. I don’t think Adlerian play therapy works particularly well with children with developmental delays, simply because they may not gain insight from metacommunication or metaphors. I am not sure that Adlerian play therapy is the best intervention with children who do not value connection—this might be autistic children and children with RAD.

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6.)Connecting with the parents of children must present challenges in the school setting. How does the Adlerian therapist work around this crucial piece, since understanding the parents’ lifestyle & connection is an essential part of the Adlerian model?

There is a two-fold answer to this. School counselors and other people who work with children in schools can do parent consultation in formats other than the standard parent consultation, which usually happens every single week. They can do phone consultation, they can ask that parents participate in parenting classes, they can do once a month consultations, etc. The other path is to focus on consultation with teachers—especially with children who are struggling in school, it is essential to work with teachers on new ways to perceive and interact with the children with more understanding of what is going on with the children and the interaction between the teachers’ lifestyles and the children’s lifestyles.

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7.) When do you integrate Adlerian Play Therapy with adventure-based counseling? Please describe this modality and when it’s most useful.

I use adventure-based games and activities with older elementary children and adolescents because I believe that children learn better from doing than they do from having someone talk to them. It is way to use play and metaphors to communicate with children who are too old to have a normal play therapy setting work with them.

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8.) The books you’ve authored as well as the chapters you’ve contributed to others are so reader-friendly. The third edition of Partners in Play was just released. What are some of the changes from the previous edition?

I co-wrote the new edition with Dr. Kristin Meany-Walen, who added a user-friendly chapter on research. We added many new case studies to illustrate the various processes of Adlerian play therapy. We added many more descriptions of techniques that can be used in Adlerian play therapy, including sand tray, dance and movement, art techniques, and adventure therapy strategies. We also expanded the chapters on working with parents and teachers. The tone of the book is more casual than the previous two versions of the book—it is just more fun.

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9.) What books were your childhood favorites? Favorites you read as a teen? How about now?

I read all the time as a child and teen. In elementary school, I read books like The Door in the Wall; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Black Cauldron; Charlottes’ Web; and My Father’s Dragon. In my early teens, I loved The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings—fantasy books. I actually still read mostly fantasy books now.

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10.) You have said that the book Love 2.0 was life changing for you. How so?

I have always thought connection to people was the most important thing in my life—connecting to friends, to family, to students, and to total strangers. The book, Love 2.0, explains the physiology and benefits of making connections—to truly seeing others and allowing them to truly see us. I also love the way the author writes—using a combination of research and anecdotes to illustrate her points. And I practice Loving Kindness meditation, which she advocates as a vehicle for creating positivity resonance with others.

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11.) Finally, we always like to hear about what is in the works from our authors. Please share your upcoming speaking engagements and workshops. Are there future plans or projects you’d like to mention here?

Kristin Meany-Walen and I are working on a new book about play therapy techniques that links treatment goals and session goals to specific techniques as a way to encourage play therapists to be intentional in their interventions.

I am very excited about doing workshops on play therapy and video games with my son, Jacob. I believe that play therapists need to know about the vocabulary, concepts, and metaphors of video games because so many of our clients spend so much time playing video games. It is a blast combining my expertise on play therapy with Jacob’s expertise on video games. We are presenting a workshop together at the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology conference in Minneapolis in May. We currently do a two day class several times a year here in Cedar Falls, Iowa at The Encouragement Zone and we are seriously thinking about taking our show on the road. We are looking for folks who would be willing to help us organize workshops (by finding inexpensive venues and helping make contacts with local play therapists) in exchange for getting to participate in a workshop for free.
I am presenting at the Arkansas play therapy conference and the Tennessee play therapy conference in June—on Adlerian play therapy.

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Terry Kottman can best be contacted by email at tkottman@cfu.net. If you want to know more about classes offered at The Zone, you can find her website at the www.encouragementzone.com. Her work number is (319)266-0887.