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 Q & A

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.

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.

I found myself repeating the same messages, quickly learning that people needed to hear things over and over and it took time to integrate new ideas about how their coping strategies had been designed to keep them safe when there was danger, and were not needed any more. I wanted to offer the group members something more concrete, a way they could remind themselves about the ideas they were learning, and I wrote Outgrowing the Pain.

For many reasons, putting that first little book together was something I could not have imagined. Decades later, I still get letters from survivors of childhood abuse, who find its message relevant and more importantly, causes them to reflect and gain insights that help move them forward. I don’t think any other book has been so rewarding as this one, written in the context of trying to be of service to women who had suffered deep injuries, in order to validate their experiences and help them take small steps forward.

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.

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.

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.

However, although history does repeat itself, we tend to ignore many of the lessons learned from the past. For example, Anthony Salvatori, then Assistant Principal of Sandy Hook Middle School was also the Coordinator of the district’s Safe School Climate program. He was responsible for preparing staff for tragedies including the violent loss of life. Again unfortunately, all too often he heard “Why are you telling us this? This is not going to happen here.” This was just prior to that tragic loss of lives. We tend to ignore the past by refusing to accept our vulnerability. By the way, the first intentional mass killing of young children took place in 1927 at Michigan Bath Consolidated School. The planted bomb killed 38 elementary schools students, six adults and seriously injured another 58 children and staff. Hopefully the stories of survivors in this work will help to discourage the “It won’t happen here” response to those attempting to provide the best preparation possible.

I also wrote this for the courageous professionals who agree to serve on their crisis teams, trauma response or critical response teams. They are all eager to be as prepared as possible, to engage in best practices to help minimize the many challenges of the recovery process. In many ways the book helps responders and teams evaluate just how prepared they are to respond to the many different experiences and reactions of survivors and their communities. The bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma produce one set of lessons, Columbine another, 9/11 still another and years later Sandy Hook Elementary still yet another set of lessons. There really is no reason not to be prepared. The lessons are there for us. No one text can answer every question or concern. However, I’ve been privileged to train and learn from hundreds of teams across the country, which allows me to bring best practices to today’s teams. For this reason I continue to provide training and can be contacted at 810-241-0391 or drbillsteele12@gmail.com.

In going through my own psychotherapy, I had the privilege of spending time with Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics. This was in the beginning days of all the focus we now have on using the body as a resource. He spent the day with our group and did an evaluation (a body scan) of each one of us. He indicated what he felt was the source of our issues and then prescribed specific body activities for our treatment. At that point in time I was pretty much talked out and was not making a great deal of progress. With the help of my therapist we started those body activities. It was amazing as I was able to release so much that I could not put in words. From that point on I felt that involving the body in some kind of healing process was critical to recovery and growth. Today regulation (resourcing the body) is viewed to be essential to trauma recovery.

The final experience was as a young teen when I was given a camera. I took hundreds of pictures. When I would sit down to look at these, I was amazed by the elements in those pictures that I didn’t actually see when I was looking through the camera lens. Fixed in time, they gave me time to really explore all the elements of those pictures, to discover details of that moment I was not aware I had captured, to look at that moment differently than when I first experienced it. I think that really drew me into developing my evidence-based drawing process. If people are interested in learning more about it they can read the chapter that that I was privileged to be able to write in the new publication by David Crenshaw and Anne Stewart, “Play Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice”. Its an excellent resource for all levels of practitioners.

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.

These are the things that currently call to me, in addition to the tennis court and the swimming pool. My life going forward will be about BALANCE, keeping my feet on the ground (literally… no more traveling the globe), and discovering what myriad things can “light my fire.” I am also eager to see more of my work and play friends, breathe fresh air (no more long commutes), and see more of my family.

Thank you Deanne, for asking me to write a little about me-self. One of my greatest joys has been to know you over these many decades and to have made a playful and loyal friend so we can have a mutual admiration society and a soul sister!

-Eliana

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.