Sandtray Therapy Final: Family Sandplay Therapy, Student #1

by Sand tray therapy student
(Atlanta, Ga.)

One of the most important aspects of play therapy, and sandtray therapy, is it’s use of nonverbal communication as a foundation for building relationships, being present in the moment, and internalizing understanding of the self, others, and one’s internal and external world. Children are unique, worthy of respect, resilient, and capable. Play therapy allows adults to meet the child in their world when established in an atmosphere of emotional and physical safety.

Children are also are part of a family system in which the environment and relationships are interactive and interdependent. This paper explores using Sandplay Therapy with Families in hopes of utilizing nonverbal communication with visualization and sensorial engagement to promote communication, understanding, and positive growth in the child and the family.

Both Family Therapy and Sandtray Therapy can be therapeutically approached from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Sandtray therapy was first developed by Margaret Lowenfeld as a way to encourage expression and as a view into the child’s internal world, valuable to parents and therapists trying to better understand a child’s perspective. It was used by Anna Freud to establish a positive client relationship and was adapted by Melanie Klein and Dora Kalff as Sandplay Therapy from a Jungian perspective. (Homier & Sweeney, 2011)

From it’s beginnings during the time of psychoanalysis, Sandtray Therapy has been applied using a variety of approaches and this proposal of combining family and sandplay therapy incorporates aspects of a variety of theoretical foundations. From Child-centered Therapy, the play is open-ended and non-directive. It has the potential to provide sensorial opportunities with sand and miniatures that could allow for some release in therapy. Observed from the Adlerian perspective, the therapist can observe behaviors with goals and ways of interacting amongst members of the family. Most obvious is Filial Therapy in which parents can be taught to engage and facilitate play with the child, and where the child is not the only patient to facilitate narrative therapy in which stories can be revealed and rewritten. (Lane, 2013)

Specifically, my lesson plan provides and example of Family Therapy in which storytelling is utilized. This is based on an activity where stories are “stretched” by members of the family. Each person builds on the same story and takes turns adding to or changing the tray and the story. Essentially, the family works together to tell a story in the sand using miniatures in a format that is both structured and open-ended.

Additionally, the use of a talking stick can help families work together to establish boundaries and expectations, or rules, for respectful communication. This provides a foundation for developing goals and helping members understand the needs and wishes of the various members of the family. It encourages the family to practice communicating in respectful, caring, and thoughtful ways when engaging together in an activity. It also helps ensure each member, even the young and/or cautious, to fully participate in the sandplay process, including the development, interpretation, and expression of feelings, thoughts, and emotions.

One foundational reason for using Sandplay Therapy with a family is that everyone is able to relate on the same level because the activity is nonverbal and requires participation from all members. Children’s form of communication is just as respected as the adults. Additionally, those who are less assertive or less verbal are able to help others understand their perspective when demonstrating it in a sandtray or responding to the process.

However, because the work is done as a family, it requires engagement by all members and can therefore be more complicated than individual therapy. Working within the family system and with parents and children together involves the need for individuals to trust and work together. One danger is the potential for more volatility, especially with individuals who may be unwilling to listen to others or those who are over-controlling, limiting the openness of others due to fearfulness. Additionally, relationships that border on abuse, physical or emotional, may be challenging in this type of situation. While these situations have the potential for success, they may prove to be very challenging and possibly destructive during a process that requires valuing all members and working together respectfully.

Sandplay Family Therapy requires working together in the here and now and provides insight into how a family interacts and makes choices individually and as a group. It is structured in a way that creates an atmosphere of safety; providing boundaries of expectations yet freedom to choose; acceptance of the child’s view; and encouragement of expression of feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Ultimately, it allows individuals in the family to communicate their feelings and perspectives in a safe format of both fantasy and reality. Change occurs, not just in an individual but within the interactional family system.

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Homier, L. E. & Sweeney, D. S. (2011). Sandtray therapy: A practical manual. (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Lane, D. (2013). Play Therapy. Lecture conducted from Mercer University, Atlanta, GA.

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