Therapy decks have long been used by counselors and psychotherapists to engage their clients in session. Play therapy stores have traditionally been filled with card games, mostly designed for children. But over the last several years, there has been a significant increase in card decks for sale online.

Therapeutic card decks can distill months of therapy takeaways into 20-word touchstones that clients can revisit between sessions. And since there are card decks for a wide range of clinical topics, therapists can easily find one or more to integrate into their practice.

Card decks may be a vehicle for clinical skills, but in session they can engage clients through play—the clinician is offered a doorway into the client’s world. Cards are a nonthreatening, informal way of showing you understand your client. You can use cards to establish the therapeutic relationship, initiate conversation, or simply play a game.

There are many therapy card decks to choose from, with differences in clinical focus and utility. Some decks are game-like while others teach skills or are more instructional in nature. There are decks for anxiety, depression, trauma, anger, and more. Cards can be used as journal prompts or pick-a-card to follow a “Theme-for-the-Day.” Some decks are non-clinical and meant to be used with loved ones. Others fall somewhere in between, but overall card decks seem to be part of the movement attempting to make therapeutic skills and tools more accessible to the general population.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have created a series of card decks to help couples develop positive habits that can build a stronger relationship. The couple created fourteen decks for couples (now accessible free through their app), drawing from decades of research on thousands of couples that participated in their “Love Lab” experiments at the University of Washington. The decks help partners connect emotionally, increase intimacy, and expand understanding of each other in a fun, playful, non-confronting manner. The cards give partners a springboard to explain what they need from one another. These decks help couples get to the root of discontent, identify ways to connect, and maximize couples’ ability to communicate creatively about relationship changes.

Unlike the Gottman decks, many recently produced therapeutic card decks use “clinical” terms, but they aren’t endorsed by therapists, nor are they informed by tested clinical concepts. Use caution when you purchase decks for use with your clients. Some card decks are intended only to entertain – they don’t have a therapeutic agenda.

Would you like to create a digital therapy card deck? You can build a library of strategies to draw upon and create your very own digital deck using the Between Sessions Virtual Counseling Rooms card deck Element.

To keep the deck simple and easy to understand, limit the instructions on each card, which clients can easily digest on their own, without your assistance. Avoid complicating things with psychological jargon. If your cards are designed for children or teens, you can add colorful illustrations.

Would you rather use a deck Between Sessions has designed? The Virtual Counseling Rooms software offers 20 decks that rework complex material into simple concepts that clients can understand. Clients don’t have to understand DBT or CBT – but you can add a card deck to a room that incorporates many clinical techniques and skills along with interesting questions, allowing your clients to open up during a non-threatening therapeutic activity.

To maintain a safe atmosphere that encourages your client to share (while avoiding forcing them to respond), consistently use the card decks in session. If presented with an uncomfortable topic, your client can shuffle the deck and select another card – or you can tell them you will give them more time to think about the question or activity and return to it later.

The magic of therapy card decks is that therapeutic growth and processing happens while answering simple questions and completing basic exercises. You may want to ask follow-up questions after using a card deck.

  • What is one thing you learned about…?

  • What did you learn about yourself?

  • What is a topic you would like to explore further?

  • What is a goal you could set for yourself that reflects something discussed in this session?

Therapeutic card decks can certainly be a useful tool in your clinician toolbox. And your clients will appreciate this unique way to make progress toward their therapy goals.