Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory and attachment theory to play therapy for children with developmental trauma

  • Natalie Hadiprodjo

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In recent decades advances in the field of neuroscience have contributed to a greater understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the developing brain and nervous system. There is a growing interest in examining how therapeutic interventions redress not only the psychological but also the physiological imbalances caused by early adversity. It is theorised that play therapy effects real change within a child’s neurobiology, especially in re-balancing the physiology of the stress response system. This thesis examines the process of play therapy from a physiological perspective and presents two exploratory studies in the application of cardiac measures to play therapy research. The first study examines the individual cardiac physiology of five children during the construction of play narratives during a play-based assessment of attachment. The second study examines the interpersonal physiology of four play therapy dyads for evidence of cardiac linkage or synchrony. Cardiac measures of heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability, specifically respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) were measured in both studies. Few studies have applied autonomic measures to play therapy research and the present studies were designed to gain an initial insight into the physiological mechanisms that underlie play therapy through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory. The Polyvagal theory is pertinent to play therapy given its emphasis on the role of relationships in regulating the stress response system via the vagus nerve - the activity of which is quantified by RSA. The present studies highlight the importance of nervous system regulation within play therapy, for children and therapists, and the vital role of therapists in assisting children in their ‘biological quest for safety’.
Date of Award7 Nov 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SupervisorStephen Farnfield (Supervisor) & Leigh Gibson (Supervisor)

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