False Allegations of Sexual Abuse and The
Persuasiveness of Play Therapy
Terence W. Campbell1
ABSTRACT: A review of the social psychological literature related
to interpersonal influence and attitude change demonstrates the powerful
persuasiveness of play therapy. Play therapy can capitalize on the
anxiety of children and reality influence them via the therapist's
reputation as a credible source. lay therapists too often maximize
their influence by isolating children from significant sources of social
support thereby controlling the information available to them. The
frequent counterproductiveness of play therapy especially in
circumstances of false allegations of sexual abuse warrants
massive malpractice litigation.
Though dwarfed by the dimensions of the witness stand surrounding
her, 9-year-old Rachel commands hushed silence from the entire courtroom
in which she testifies. A jury, three attorneys, and a judge all
listen attentively as she graphically details the repeated episodes of
sexual abuse she supposedly suffered at the hands of her mother and
stepfather. Reactions of shock and sympathy flash across the face
of every juror as Rachel recalls the experiences of fellatio and vaginal
penetration she apparently endured.
Dramatic and compelling as Rachel's narration of her alleged
nightmare was, her testimony also evoked images of an iceberg
remembering that only one-seventh of an iceberg is visible while the
rest remains submerged beneath the surface of the water. The jury
in this criminal case also understood that many issues underlying
Rachel's sordid revelations demanded closer scrutiny because
after a trial of 11 days, they returned verdicts of not guilty in
response to all the charges against her mother and stepfather.
Background and Chronology
Subsequent to her parents separating in September of 1986, Rachel's
father became increasingly suspicious that she had been sexually abused
by Mark the man with whom his estranged wife was living. As
a result of his suspicions, Daniel (Rachel's father) sought a physical
examination for suspected abuse of his then 5-year-old daughter in
August of 1987. Despite the fact that the initial examination was
negative, Daniel obtained another examination for Rachel in September of
1987 which also resulted in a negative finding. In mid-September
of 1987, Daniel obtained Rachel's custody; and by mid-October of that
year, he had solicited the counseling services of a Master's level
psychologist (Ms. England) for Rachel.
Over the course of 13 treatment sessions between October of 1987 and
February of 1988, Rachel never disclosed any report of sexual abuse to
Ms. England. Nevertheless, she reported feeling overwhelmed by the
simultaneous demands for her loyalty from each of her parents.
Rachel described her ensuing conflicts in somatic terms explaining,
"My stomach hurts when I feel a pull from both sides."
She moreover clarified, "The hurt starts when I see Mommy and Daddy
fight," and she wistfully exclaimed, "I just wish they would
stop." As so many other children of divorce, Rachel lamented
that she could not choose which parent she most wanted to live with
because she still preferred to remain with both of them.
In early July of 1988, Rachel's mother (Cindy) and Mark
married. By mid-July of 1988, David had filed a formal complaint
with Children's Protective Services (CPS) alleging that Mark had struck
Rachel so hard that he left a hand print on her back. CPS
undertook a comprehensive investigation, found no cause for
substantiation after interviewing both Cindy and Mark, and the primary
investigator closed this matter observing that her agency would likely
encounter this family again because of their ongoing custody
dispute. Subsequent events verified the investigator's prediction;
CPS conducted another investigation related to allegations of Rachel's
sexual abuse beginning in mid-August of 1988. Like the previous
investigation, this inquiry also discovered no basis for
substantiation. The second investigator also issued an ominous
warning the frequency with which Rachel was undergoing interviews
regarding alleged abuse threatened the reliability of anything she might
disclose in the future because of rehearsal effects.
Effects of Play Therapy
By September of 1988, Daniel had met Kathy a divorced,
psychiatric nurse who struck him as particularly sensitive to his
assessment of Rachel's problems because she had been sexually abused
herself as a child. Kathy recommended play therapy for Rachel with
a Ph.D. psychologist Dr. McKay at the facility where she
worked. Approximately one month after initiating this course of
treatment, Dr. McKay's notes indicated Rachel reporting that Mark had
sexually abused her. Rachel's recall of this apparent abuse
included her description of how "Mark squirted sticky stuff on my
face from his thing." In response to the report and
recommendations of Dr. McKay, the court terminated Cindy's visitation
except for supervised visits confined to her former husband's residence.
In February of 1990, Dr. Will a child psychiatrist employed at
the same facility as Dr. McKay assumed the responsibility for
Rachel's treatment. Dr. Will also advocated expressive play
therapy for Rachel confident that such procedures facilitated necessary
"disclosure work." Over the next two years of treatment
with Dr. Will Rachel's disclosures grew at an exponential rate; in fact,
she eventually implicated her mother as participating with Mark in
sexually abusing her.
In response to Dr. Will's encouragement, Rachel kept diaries of her
thoughts and feelings. Between May 1, 1990 and February 2, 1992,
she made 246 separate entries in her diaries. Rachel described her
mother negatively on 121 occasions, and Mark was described negatively in
120 entries. Her portrayals of her mother and Mark involved
increasing anger and fantasized retribution, and in turn, Dr. Will
praised Rachel for ventilating her feelings. The frequency of
Rachel's cathartic experiences finally led her to the conclusion that
referring to her mother as "Cindy" not as
"Mom" would afford her enormous relief and
comfort. Rachel decided to reserve the designation "Mom"
for Kathy, and Dr. Will endorsed her decision even though she had
met Cindy only briefly on one occasion after which she refused her any
To belabor the obvious, the sequence of events outlined in this case
stagger the imagination. At 5 years of age shortly after her
father assumed her custody Rachel reported the kinds of loyalty
conflicts which often inundate children of divorce. Three years
later, after residing continuously in her father's custody, Rachel
insists that she endured frequent sexual abuse at the age of 5 which was
so cruel that it bordered on the sadistic.
Rachel's profound revision of her own history underscores the
powerful persuasiveness of play therapy. Understanding the events
that transpired over the course of Rachel's treatment necessitates a
review of the social psychological literature related to persuasion and
Zimbardo, Ebbesen, and Maslach (1977) have outlined the conditions
which enhance the persuasiveness of any agent attempting to influence a
target subject. Attempts at exercising influence are most
effective when (1) the target struggles with persistent feelings of
conflict; (2) the target's feelings of conflict provoke heightened
experiences of fear and anxiety; (3) the agent(s) of influence enjoy
substantial source credibility; (4) the source credibility of the
influence agent(s) enhances the persuasiveness of his/her
communications; (5) the target finds herself surrounded by a social
network that endorses the agent(s) of influence; (6) the target's
attempts at resisting influence lead to feelings of guilt; (7) the
target is isolated from previously available sources of social support;
(8) the agent(s) of influence effectively controls the information
available to the target.
Feelings of Conflict and Anxiety
The circumstances of her parents' divorce proceeding obviously
subjected Rachel to considerable duress. In behavioral terms, she
struggled with a double approach-avoidance conflict. Her feelings
of affection and loyalty for both her parents elicited approach
responses in relation to each of them. Nevertheless, sustained
closeness with either parent also aroused Rachel's anxiety and
corresponding avoidance responses as she anticipated censure from the
other parent. When conflicts such as these assume chronic
proportions, the child endures a painfully aversive situation that
motivates attempts to escape these circumstances. A therapist who
responds sympathetically to such a child's plight, and offers hope for
alleviating it, profoundly increases her influence with that child.
Source Credibility and Persuasiveness
In a manner similar to client-centered therapy, play therapy is
child-centered; it encourages children to initiate whatever activity
they find appealing while the therapist appears to follow the child's
lead. Children of divorce who routinely encounter indoctrination
attempts regarding what they should think and feel can find short-term
relief in the relatively permissive atmosphere of a play room.
Rather than immediately assassinate the character of either parent, play
therapists initially seek a warm and understanding relationship with
their clients that allows them to assume a role of central significance
in a child's life.
When Dr. Will testified in the criminal trial on behalf of the
prosecution, she disclosed how play therapists think about their
In the early part of therapy, I was getting to know Rachel and she
was getting to know me and trust me. We worked on identifying
feelings, and I let her guide where we went. It was done
initially with playing, drawing, a fairly unstructured kind of
The effusive confidence with which Dr. Will described her work was
almost inspiring. Of course, Dr. Will could only rely on
self-inspired confidence for her credibility given the dismal state of
play therapy outcome research (Campbell, 1992).
Unlike frustrated parents who demand what their children should do in
relation to the other parent, play therapists initially confine their
comments to why a child responds in various ways during treatment
sessions. For the child, then, the therapist emerges as a kindly,
trustworthy figure who merely wants to understand the reasons for the
child's behavior. Compared to combative parents who rarely conceal
their ulterior motives, the warm and gentle play therapist seems a
paragon of virtue and fairness. As a result, the compassionate
demeanor of play therapists inspires the trust of their clients and
affords them substantial credibility and influence as they interact with
Ultimately, however, the benign appearance of play therapists is
deceptive. Play therapy can subtly coerce children as indirectly
and effectively as Rogerian techniques influence adult clients (Truax,
1966). Like any other psychotherapy orientation, the direction of
play therapy responds to the theoretical convictions of its
practitioners and play therapists endorse a tension-reduction
model that enthusiastically embraces catharsis. Consequently, play
therapists attend selectively to their clients' behavior reserving their
greatest interest for responses emotionally intense enough to qualify as
As a result of their therapist's selective reinforcement, children in
play therapy learn when they are expressing angry feelings" how
significant such expressions supposedly are. In fact, Dr. Will
frequently reassured Rachel "that the feeling of anger was
okay." Thus, play therapy encourages children to actively
express themselves as a necessary condition of treatment. To the
degree that children demonstrate imaginative improvisation in play
therapy, they typically encounter lavish praise for the creativity with
which they ventilate their feelings. Interestingly enough, related
data have demonstrated that improvised, active role playing effectively
influences alterations in attitudes and beliefs.
King and Janis (1956) assessed the degree to which making a
presentation shifted the presenter's attitudes in direction of the
presentation. College students were asked to argue that 90% of
college graduates would soon be drafted immediately after their
graduation, and then serve a mandatory three years of military
service. The students were assigned to one of three experimental
conditions: (1) subjects used an outline to improvise a speech which was
tape recorded; (2) subjects read a prepared speech into a tape recorder;
(3) subjects merely read the prepared speech to themselves. The
subjects who could actively improvise (Condition #1) exhibited the
greatest attitude change in the direction of the speech they made.
Like the college students in the above experiment, children in play
therapy respond to their treatment in an "as if" manner.
In response to the reinforcement of the therapist, they act as if they
are angry; and active role playing can influence children to conclude
that they are in fact angry. Bem's (1972) self-perception theory
accounts for such outcomes by emphasizing that we often infer what we
believe from our most recent actions. Considerations such as
these, however, certainly did not constrain Dr. Will's imaginative
interpretations. She blithely disregarded her own influence when
she described Rachel as "expressing alot (sic) of anger toward Mark
and talked about hating him, wanting to tear him and poke him, and
wished that he was dead." Unless children in these
circumstances define themselves as angry, they must contend with why
they are acting in a manner that is so dissonant with what they think
Children who act as if they are angry in play therapy are also
motivated to reconstruct past events related to their anger.
Otherwise, they could encounter elevated levels of cognitive dissonance
(Festinger, 1957) if they should recall pleasant memories involving
someone with whom they are supposedly so enraged. In turn, leading
questions and suggestive interpretations can assist children in finding
the proper details for a revision of the past that is more consistent
with their here-and-now behavior (Siegel, Waters, & Dinwiddy, 1988).
As a vehicle of interpersonal influence that can alter attitudes and
beliefs, play therapy becomes progressively more persuasive over
time. Though children appear to control the course of play
therapy, therapists actually exercise ultimate control via their
interpretative comments. Play therapists regularly attribute a
child's overt behavior to some underlying feelings, and simultaneously,
they influence children to amplify and exaggerate the intensity with
which they express those feelings. The therapist can then label
the child's feelings as anger or some other similar emotion, and
attribute those feelings to an alleged history of sexual abuse.
For example, Dr. Will described how Rachel felt that other children
in her school thought badly of her. She then explained to Rachel,
"many kids who have been through sexual abuse will think that the
abuse is their fault and believe that they are bad." Rachel
rejected this particular interpretation, but make no mistake, Dr. Will
eventually prevailed. She persistently attributed various
experiences reported by Rachel to her alleged history of sexual
abuse. Again and again, Dr. Will explained to Rachel that she
suffered nightmares because she had been sexually abused, and she
endured unpleasant thoughts because she had been sexually abused, and
she related to others in a controlling manner because she had been
sexually abused. Inundated by this unrelenting propaganda week
after week, and month after month, Rachel eventually succumbed and began
to reconstruct events from her past in accordance with the
indoctrination of her play therapist.
For children who are thought to have been sexually abused, the
interpretive endeavors of play therapy correspond to a rigid
formula: You are undergoing experience A because of experience B
and experience B almost inevitably equates to a supposed history of
sexual abuse. Thus, play therapists arbitrarily define the
formative experiences of children for them. Indeed, they can
patronize children via wildly speculative interpretations that suggest:
"Even though you experienced it (some event in the past), you don't
understand it; and even though I didn't experience it, your
misunderstanding allows me to understand it better than you."
(These interpretive tactics suggest that Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter
would have enthusiastically endorsed play therapy. He might have
described it as "a particularly illuminating exercise you
learn fascinating things about your past that never really
happened. This proves that while truth may be stranger than
fiction, fiction is stronger than truth.")
In view of the therapist's source credibility as a kind and gentle
figure, children accept these interpretations as legitimate. They
then resort to their imaginations though convinced they are
searching their memories inventing anecdotes of past events which
appear to validate the therapist's interpretations (Bonanno, 1990;
Network Formation and Guilt Induction
Play therapy with children of divorce often excludes noncustodial
parents, and these circumstances lure play therapists into sympathetic
alliances with custodial parents (Campbell, in press-a). Because a
"harmony of minds" (Sartre, 1964) between two or more people
affords them mutual feelings of comfort, play therapists accommodate
themselves to the influences of custodians. In turn, they
interpret a child's relationship with the noncustodial parent in a
manner that corresponds to the custodian's agenda. While
progressively endorsing each other's thinking, play therapists and
custodians proceed to interact more frequently because of the views they
In their determination to create a "therapeutic alliance"
with a custodial parent, play therapists may go beyond a genuine and
understanding relationship to the extent of coalition formation.
Weithorn (1987) has described how these coalitions develop and
the problems they create while summarizing the short-comings of
one-sided custody evaluations:
It is possible for psychologists to become slowly compromised by
the "us/them" mentality that pervades each side of an
adversarial legal dispute (or non-legal dispute); to become tainted by
having only half the data pertinent to the case; or to be influenced
in some way by financial remuneration. An insidious process may
occur through which psychologists gradually lose their objectivity and
unwittingly become partial as advocates for one parent (p. 195).
As an example of the above, Dr. Will explained: "The history
that I was given by the stepmother and the father was that Rachel had
been sexually abused by Mark R., that he had touched the genitalia, and
that there was a concern about oral sex. They described having
gone to the emergency room and having this evaluated..."
Unfortunately, Dr. Will neglected to obtain the emergency room records
indicating that there was no substantiation or even any suspicion
of sexual abuse. Her error likely corresponded to her readiness
for identifying with the cause espoused by Rachel's step mother and
Motivated by their mutual concerns for the welfare of a sexually
abused child, play therapists and custodians exchange speculations with
each other related to the supposed abuse. They can discuss when it
likely transpired, where it could have occurred, and how it might have
been concealed. Any discrepancies in their thinking dissipate as
their attitudes about the alleged abuse increasingly gravitate toward
each other. In turn, their evolving consensus can convince them
that they have discovered important facts "We agree,
therefore we must be right!" Thus, play therapists and
custodians can verify for each other that some imaginary event actually
transpired and what originated as a worrisome rumor (sexual
abuse) acquires the unwarranted status of an indisputable fact
(Campbell. in press-b).
Complex social networks often develop in response to allegations of
sexual abuse even when those allegations are false. For
example, Rachel lived in a three generation household that included her
father, stepmother, and both paternal grandparents. As a result of
her working relationship with Dr. Will, Kathy frequently spoke with her
about Rachel's behavior at home and her response to treatment.
Kathy also shared the details of these conversations with Rachel's
father and grandparents, and any one of these adults would discuss
issues related to Rachel's treatment directly with her. As Dr.
Will sympathized with Kathy regarding the ordeals that she insisted
Rachel had previously endured, Kathy reciprocated by reassuring Dr. Will
that her wisdom was aiding Rachel enormously. Consequently, Rachel
was well aware that her father's family and Dr. Will viewed each other
with considerable respect.
When play therapists join with custodial parents as sympathetic
allies, they can find themselves as influenced by the social network
supporting the allegations as they influence that network. These
networks encourage conformity with their constructions of reality by
surrounding themselves with a kind of semi-permeable membrane. Any
input, ranging from accurate anecdote to unbridled conjecture, is
allowed into the network as long as it assumes that sexual abuse has
occurred. In contrast, input that challenges the veracity of these
allegations marks the individual who expresses it as a deviant; and such
input is rejected by the network as undeserving of any consideration.
Ultimately, then, play therapists often find their work
enthusiastically supported by a social network. A child who
attempts to resist the influence of a play therapist in these
circumstances encounters the conformity pressures of a powerful majority
(Asch, 1956). If another respected adult were available to support
the child's resistance, the play therapist's influence could diminish
accordingly. Typically, however, the readiness with which these
networks reject any views deviating from their own guarantees that no
such support is available to the child. Not surprisingly, then,
children conform and comply with the influences of play therapists to
avoid the guilt their nonconformity would provoke.
Isolation and Information Control
Play therapists often isolate children from sources of information
that might challenge their influence. For example, when they
formally recommend limitations or suspensions of a noncustodian's
visitation rights, the noncustodial parent obviously finds it more
difficult to defend his reputation. Play therapists may also
resort to "blame-and-change" maneuvers as a means of
justifying their arbitrary visitation recommendations. When play
therapists indulge in these maneuvers, children learn that therapy blames
your father (or your mother if she is the noncustodian) in order to change
you (Campbell, in press-c).
Blame-and-change maneuvers effectively triangulate a child's
relationship with the noncustodial parent. Once triangulated, that
relationship is subjected to critical comments by a variety of third
parties (i.e., custodial parent, custodial stepparent, grandparents, and
the ever kindly play therapist). These third party observers
inform the child that they know more about the child's relationship with
the noncustodial parent than the child does. Consequently the
child and the noncustodial parent can no longer manage their own
relationship. Instead, their relationship responds to the
influences of various third parties who are often less than committed to
the welfare of their parent-child bond.
Dr. Will unhesitatingly influenced Rachel's relationship with her
mother by directing ill-informed comments at her about it. She
On one occasion Rachel talked about being bothered that Mommy, or
Cindy, had talked about Mark during a visit, and I talked with her
about letting Mommy know that she was bothered by this. And we
talked about what she could do; that if Mommy talked about
Mark, that she could leave, and that she could tell Mommy that she
(Rachel) would leave.
This is a particularly chilling example of a play therapist intruding
divisively on how a child relates to a noncustodial parent.
Despite the fact that Dr. Will had never observed Rachel's relationship
with her mother on a first-hand basis, she attempted to alter that
relationship in accordance with her own biases.
When play therapists triangulate a child's relationship with a parent
via blame-and-change maneuvers, they ignore the research relevant to
children of divorce. Above all else, the post-divorce adjustment
of children is directly related to the quality of their parents'
post-divorce relationship (Emery, Hetherington, & DiLalla, 1985;
Isaacs, Montalvos & Abelsohn, 1986; Wallerstein & Kelly,
1980). Children who enjoy stable relationships with both custodial
and noncustodial parents adjust more effectively to their parents'
divorce. When play therapists disregard this research and
triangulate a child's relationship with a parent via blame-and-change
maneuvers, treatment frequently deteriorates into an iatrogenic outcome
the attempt to treat the child's distress only increases its severity.
In his comprehensive examination of the indoctrination procedures
developed for American POW's by the Chinese during the Korean war,
Schein, Schnneier, and Barker (1961) identified what conditions enhanced
the persuasiveness of those tactics. Not surprisingly, the
conditions he specified correspond to the variables previously outlined
by Zimbardo et al. (1977). Schein et al. referred to the
procedures employed by the Chinese as "coercive persuasion,"
but they are more commonly known as "brainwashing."
Regardless of the term chosen to describe such tactics, Schein et al.
emphasized that they are neither novel nor unique.
While acknowledging differences in substance related to the agenda of
various influence agents, Schein et al. also cautioned against
overlooking similarities in method shared by those agents. He
specifically insisted, "There is a world of difference in the
content of what is transmitted in religious orders, prisons, educational
institutions, mental hospitals, and thought reform centers. But
there are striking similarities in the manner in which influence
occur..." (Schein et al., 1961, p.285). In view of the
similarities between play therapy and other persuasive endeavors, one
can argue that play therapy qualifies as "brainwashing."
Play Therapy and Malpractice Considerations
Above and beyond the ethical oversights committed by many play
therapists who treat children of divorce, the malpractice considerations
are even more sobering. Bennett, Bryant, VandenBos, and Greenwood
(1990) have outlined how the exacerbation of a client's presenting
symptoms, and the development of new symptoms (i.e. "disruption of
previously solid relationships"), increase the malpractice risks
for psychotherapists. When psychotherapy for children of divorce
deteriorates into a triangulated relationship, their symptoms frequently
worsen and their relationships with one or both parents are often
Play therapists sometimes include the noncustodial parent in
treatment for their children after they have already established a loyal
coalition with the custodial parent. In these situations, the
therapist often remains aligned with the custodian and subjects the
noncustodian to accusatory interpretations (Wile, 1984). Rather
than address what needs to be done to resolve the parental conflicts of
the present, the therapist suggests why the noncustodian
committed alleged transgressions in the past and these suggestive
interpretations often reflect the custodian's agenda. Therapists
who commit these errors merely fuel the fires of parental conflict that
burn between divorced spouses. This outcome can result in such
parental polarization that only supernatural intervention could reverse
When noncustodial parents endure the biases of a therapist aligned
with their former spouse, they may overgeneralize their experience to
all psychotherapists. As a result, they reject psychotherapy
as hopelessly counterproductive, resign themselves to the continued
inevitability of disrupted relationships with their children, and bring
renewed vigor to future confrontations with their custodial
counterpart. These circumstances also create fertile ground for
growing malpractice litigation. Disillusionment with psychotherapy
that leads to feelings of hopelessness is another cause for legal action
against psychotherapists (Bennett et al., 1990).
Whether fanning the flames of false allegations of sexual abuse, or
neglecting the welfare of children with more conventional problems, play
therapy has long avoided responsibility for its frequently
counterproductive outcomes. Therapists who portray themselves as
kindly figures playing gently with children appear at least committed to
a worthy endeavor or seem merely benign at their worst.
Obviously, however, this charitable conclusion qualifies as another
example of how appearances can be exceedingly deceptive.
Nevertheless, the discovery procedures of malpractice litigation would
shed sorely needed light on the massive shortcomings associated with
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W. Campbell is a clinical and forensic psychologist at 36040
Dequindre, Sterling Heights, MI 48310. [Back]