Sandtray Therapy for Trauma Clients (student #6)

by Sand Tray Therapy Student

Sand Tray Therapy for Traumatized Children

Trauma is something that a person experiences as a result of an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effect on the person’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being (SAMHSA, 2012). There are a number of different ways that a child can be traumatized including physical, verbal, or sexual abuse or by witnessing an event. In 2004, the United States of Health and Human Services reported that approximately 1.8 million referrals were made to child protective services for allegations of child abuse or neglect and out of those referrals 896,000 cases were substantiated. Ten percent of the cases (88,600) that were confirmed were some type of sexual abuse. Child abuse is not exclusive to any socioeconomic level and occur regardless of ethnicity, culture, religion, and education, which is why it is so important that clinicians have the skills and tools necessary to work with children who has experience and survived trauma.

Sandtray therapy is part of the play therapy modality which is expressive and projective in nature. It was developed in the 1920’s by Margaret Lowenfeld and became poplular in the 1980’s by a Jungian analyst, Dora Kaliff. Sandtray is known to aid in helping clients express nonverbalized emotional issues in a creative, safe enivornment. The clients are able to “speak” through their miniatures with the help of the counselor. It allows the clients to have a sense of boundaries and limits in the therapeutic relationship, which can also help them in other areas of their life outside of the counseling room. It has been known to be used for children, adolescents, adults, families, and couples and have shown to be an effective communication medium for all types of clients (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011).

Sand tray therapy has become one of the best tools in therapy for working with traumatized children. Many children have difficulties in being able to vocally express their emotional state and have lost a sense of security due to their traumatic experiences. Sandtray therapy gives the children a unique opportunity for them to be able to explain what has happened to them and to be able to express in their own language how it has impacted them emotionally and physically in a safe and secure environment. Studies have shown that play therapy is a valuable approach in treating children who have experienced trauma that provide a reparative experience for the children by assisting them in coming to terms with the traumatic event, helping them regain mastery of their body, and enable future psychosocial development (Reyes & Asbrand, 2005). The child doing sand tray therapy is able to engage in a behavior that is natural to them, which is play. They are able to be creative, have fun and not necessarily feel like they are working in the therapy session, allowing them to feel more relaxed and safe in the therapeutic setting.

Sandtray therapy offers the child to have an opportunity to regain some of the control and safety that they have lost due to the trauma. Sandtray therapy allows the child to be the creator of their world, empowering them. They are the author of their story and can share or not share depending on how comfortable they feel at the time and can move at their own pace. By having an adult be present for their story telling and creation without being intrusive and commanding while providing a nurturing and supportive environment for them can give them the corrective experience that they need to repair the damage that may have been done by others.

Limitations and dangers of sand tray therapy is dependent on the clinician working with the client. Because the materials that are expressed in trauma counseling with a child is very sensitive in nature, the clinician will need to be careful in not challenging the client more than they are prepared to be. A great deal of damage can be done by not presenting the sandtray properly. The clinician will need to be sure to be aware of both the verbal and nonverbal cues during the session. The sandtray therapy can be very reparative if done properly but can also be extremely damaging if the child is forced into divulging parts of their story before they are ready to be told, which can end up re-traumatizing the child.

In closing, the sandtray therapy is an invaluable tool that can be used for survivors of trauma and other therapeutic needs of all ages. With the proper training and insight, the clinician will be able to use the sandtray as a unique way to communicate with the clients that is not possible with traditional talk therapy.

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