An Interview with Liz Hadley, MA, LMHCA

Liz Hadley Interview
September 13, 2022

From the moment I first met Liz, I knew there was something special about her. We met on the phone, and even while talking in this way I could tell that she was poised and steady, delivering thoughtful and well-paced answers to my clinical questions.

It didn’t take long for me to know that Liz would be a great fit at Mente. As an experienced clinician, Liz brought knowledge and technique of the highest caliber to our practice. Most importantly, as a human being, Liz is authentically present and filled with compassion.

She has touched many lives with her passion to serve communities of refugees and asylees. She speaks candidly and firmly about her stance on social justice, elevating the voices of those who might otherwise be brushed aside.

Liz is best known at Mente as our resident Play Therapist. She has a unique specialty in serving children who are primarily under the age of 9; she uses the rich world of expressive, sensory, and non-verbal techniques that play therapy has to offer to unlock the healing capacities of our youth.
I hope you will enjoy this brief but enlightening interview.

Martha: Liz, what drew you to specialize in play therapy?

Liz: I knew that as a therapist, I wanted to work with adults and children, but I understood that adults exist in the world in very different ways than children do. In order to come alongside a child and support them towards well-being, I would need to use a different language and it would have to be their language.

When I first encountered play therapy, I loved how this modality asked that I enter a child’s world, rather than asking a child to enter the world of adults in order to heal…a world that is too often about words, cognitions, logic and linearity. Play therapy uses the primary language of children – play – to support a child in exploring, expressing and shaping their interior world. It switches the power imbalance and actually looks to the child’s language to be the mode through which healing happens.

I think that for many adults, play therapy is puzzling: it doesn’t follow the predictability and flow of some types of adult therapies, it isn’t always obvious what a child is working through in their play, and it refuses to rush the unfolding process that is human growth, development and healing. What exactly are we doing? Is sometimes the question we adults wrestle with when we encounter play. It can be so very hard for us to enter a child’s world and trust the innate healing power of play.

Because so many of us adults don’t play anymore, we as a society often fail to recognize how essential play is. Play is an extraordinary and natural process that helps us build trust and mastery, explore our memories, identities and relationships, regulate our nervous systems, figure out how we fit into the world, and so much more! Play therapy creates an environment that allows for therapeutic play to help a child process their experiences and develop effective strategies for managing their worlds…all without asking them to leave the realm of childhood.

Martha: I have heard throughout the years from people who hear the word “play” and associate it with children. Is this the case? How would you reframe what play is and who it is for?

Liz: Somewhere along the way, many of us came to believe that play was something we were to outgrow. As we became adults, we were expected to still our bodies, prioritize our minds, and value “getting to the point”. Play became the task of children, but never the task of adults.

But play is for everyone. Cultivating playfulness in life is a practice that heals and sustains us throughout the lifespan.

I would reframe play as a process that invites spontaneity, reciprocity, creativity, unchoreographed movement and unrehearsed ways of being. This means that there are many ways to play and that play is for everyone. The same benefits that play offers to children can also be experienced by adults. What we know about play is that it actually accesses a part of our brains that we, as adults, don’t normally access. When we play, we’re using more of our right and lower brain (i.e. not the verbal processing place) which can help us process, express and show things that we can’t tell. Plus, play brings us back into our bodies to reconnect with the very thing that carries us through life.

There is so much that we could regain if adults played more. It invites us into more flexible ways of being, it literally heals parts of us, it grounds us in our bodies and helps us regulate, it can connect us to others and gives us opportunities to practice different ways of being in the world.

How might you invite more playfulness into your life?

Martha: Are there any unique benefits to play therapy when compared to other forms of therapy?

Liz: Like I mentioned before, when we play, we are activating the right and lower part of our brains. This is also the brain region where trauma is stored, which is often why when we have experienced trauma, we won’t have words for what happened to us…we’re taken into a part of our brains where we literally don’t have access to verbal processing.

So not only is play therapy developmentally appropriate and culturally situated, but it also is an excellent therapeutic tool for children (and adults) who have experienced trauma because it taps into the very part of the brain where trauma is stored. It opens up a pathway for healing on a very neurological level.

Play therapy, because it is so developmentally appropriate and child-centered, often results in a healing or growth that is more effective and longer lasting than other modalities because, as we’ve said before, it uses the child’s language to facilitate healing. Children are participating in and directing their growth, which can be incredibly impactful and meaningful.

Martha: How can play therapy support anti-racist and social justice work in the mental health field?

Liz: Many healing modalities that are used in the mental health field today come from White, Western philosophies and “speak” a particular language (e.g. heavy focus on cognitions…pulling from the philosophy of “I think, therefore I am”). Play therapy practices a humility in turning to and relying on the language of the client, and by creating an empowering and safe place where a child gets to lead in their own healing. It upsets the power imbalance of our society that elevates adults over children and adult ways of being over a child’s way of being. Play is also culturally situated, which means that it morphs and molds to honor a child’s particular context and way of being in the world. I also believe that play therapy invites children to play out and experiment with having mastery over their worlds…which is a freedom that many communities, and the children within them…have not been afforded because of racism and other oppressive systems. Even though this sense of mastery and control may only be felt in the play therapy room at times, it is a small way by which we push back on the systems and injustices that take away another’s freedom and well-being.

Martha: When people are unable to play, how do you explain this?

Liz: There may be many reasons for one’s seeming inability to play. Someone may be “stuck” in a frozen or collapsed nervous system state where creativity and playfulness is beyond their reach. One may also be feeling significant pressures or expectations which build a self-consciousness around play. Differing physical abilities may also make certain kinds of play possible or impossible as well.

If, as an adult, you feel unable to play, I would be curious to hear about your play history – what play was like for you as a child, what you played, how often, with whom, etc. Perhaps something happened to you or a particular message was sent to you about your playfulness that makes it challenging to cultivate playfulness in your adult life now? When we play as adults, we are in many ways being countercultural and the effort it takes to return to this abandonment can make many of us feel we’re “unable” to play.

Martha: For the people reading this that might be interested in exploring play therapy, what are some of the things you recommend they think about?

Liz: Play therapy is a powerful tool and has been a supportive therapy for a variety of concerns related to a child’s well-being: from grief and loss, to behavioral issues caused by family changes and transitions, trauma, bullying, anxiety, ADHD, learning differences and more.

It’s also most impactful when parents and/or caregivers are actively involved in the treatment process. So, if you’re interested in exploring play therapy for your child, I’d invite you to think about what it might mean for you to be involved in this process and to be curious about what might be difficult for you in trusting the process of play to bring about regulation and healing.

Once again, it’s a movement into a different world and language, and it doesn’t always come easy for us adults!

Thank you so much to Liz for sharing her wisdom and perspective.

Martha Stebbins-Aguiniga

I am Martha, Director, and Mental Health Counselor at Mente. I am a mother, partner, tía, daughter, and friend. I am a cis-gendered Latinx bilingual woman.