What is Gestalt Therapy

Basically, Gestalt therapy is a process-oriented mode of therapy that focuses attention on the healthy, integrated functioning of the total organism comprised of the senses, the body, the emotions and the intellect. It was originally developed by Frederick(Fritz) and Laura Perls in the 1940’s and has at its base principles from psychoanalytic theory, Gestalt psychology, various humanistic theories, as well as aspects of phenomenology, existentialism and Reichian body therapy.From these sources, and others, a large body of theoretical concepts and principles have evolved underlying the practice of Gestalt therapy.

A major focus is to help clients become aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they can change themselves, and at the same time, to learn to accept and value themselves.It focuses more on process than content ( though content may be used as examples of one’s process.) What is directly perceived, felt and experienced is considered more relevant than explanations and interpretations.

A famous misconception is that Gestalt therapy is the empty chair technique. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “I use Gestalt therapy all the time,” referring to this technique.It would seem ludicrous to think that I, for example, trained to be a Gestalt therapist for more than three years at the Los Angeles Gestalt Therapy Institute tolearn this technique and nothing else.

Moreover, there exist at this time scores of books and articles discussing the principles and conceptsofGestalttherapy.Becauseoftheextensive,comprehensivenatureofthistherapy,a short summary as this could not describe the basic concepts involved.Paradoxically, however, these concepts are actually so organic that they exist and are part of our every day life.It sometimes takes a genius, like Einstein, to focus on the obvious.

Gestalt Therapy With Children

Because of the organic nature of Gestalt Therapy, I found that its use with children was natural, even though very little of the Gestalt literature focused on its use with children.The developmental process of infants and children is amazingly akin to the principles of Gestalt Therapy. Many of the salient principles are pertinent in work with young people. Some of these include(not in any particular order):

  1. The I/Thou Relationship
  2. The issues of Contact and Resistance
  3. Awareness and Experience
  4. The use of the Senses and Body
  5. The Sense of Self
  6. Contact/Boundary Disturbances(behaviors and symptoms that bring children into therapy)
  7. Organismic Self-Regulation—the search for equilibrium
  8. .Emotional Expression, particularly anger
  9. Introjection,Confluence,Deflection,Retroflection
  10. The Paradoxical Theory of Change and the role of Self-Acceptance and Self-Nurturing
  11. The Use of Polarities
  12. Unfinished Business

and much, much, much more.

I have developed a process of therapy that is based on the principles of Gestalt Therapy in ordertohelptherapistshavesomekindofguideintheirwork.Becausewe,whoworkwithchildren,use many creative, expressive, playful techniques, the work is often misunderstood and seen as “just playing.” These techniques are the very essence of our work and are often bridges to the child’s inner self and afford powerful expression.

This work is applicable to all ages, including adolescents(and adults),and can be used in a variety of settings. The old adage of “meeting the client where he or she is ”is of great importance in this work, and is what makes it so effective.The only pre-requisite is the relationship—if it’s not there, this, then, becomes the focus of the therapy.


Buber,M. (1958).Iand Thou.  NewYork:Scribner

Latner,J.(1986),The Gestalt Therapy Book. New York:The Gestalt Journal Press. Oaklander, V. (1988) Windows To Our Children.New York:The Gestalt Journal Press

Oaklander, V.((1997)“The Therapeutic Process With Children and Adolescents.”

The Gestalt Review, Vol.1(4), 1997, New York: The Analytic Press.

Perls, F.(1969). Ego, Hunger and Aggression. New York: Vintage Books Perls F., Hefferline, R. & Goodman, P.(1994), Gestalt Therapy. New York: The Gestalt Journal Press.

Polster, E. & Polster, M.(1973), Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Yontef, G.(1993). Awareness, Dialogue & Process. New York: The Gestalt Journal Press

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Violet Oaklander, PhD.

Violet Oaklander was the author of the books Windows to Our Children: a Gestalt Therapy Approach to Children and Adolescents (now in 17 languages), and Hidden Treasure: A Map to the Child’s Inner Self (now in 7 languages), as well as several journal articles, book chapters, and audio and video recordings on psychotherapeutic work with children. She earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, a Master of Arts in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling, a Master of Science in Special Education with emotionally disturbed children, and is a certified Gestalt Therapist.

Dr. Oaklander’s unique approach to working with children, which combines Gestalt Therapy theory, philosophy, and practice with a variety of expressive techniques, has won international recognition. She recieved a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Play Therapy, U.S. as well as numerous other awards for her contribution to the mental health field. In February of 2012 she was honored and awarded by the Edna Reiss-Sophie Greenberg Chair at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center in Los Angeles.

Dr. Oaklander traveled extensively in the United States as well as throughout the world giving training seminars on her approach to working with children and adolescent. For 27 years she conducted a highly successful two-week training program drawing people to California from all over the world. In addition, she was a regular instructor for many years with the extension programs of the University of California campuses in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and San Diego, and the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Dr. Oaklander grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lived in Miami; New York City; Denver; Albany; and Long Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Santa Barbara, California. After 21 years in Santa Barbara, Dr. Oaklander moved to Los Angeles to live near her son and daughter-in-law in her retirement. She was married for 26 years to Harold Oaklander, a licensed social worker and Gestalt therapist (deceased). Together, they had three children: Mha Atma S. Khalsa (Arthur), Michael (deceased), and Sara.