As a parent, you want to do everything you can to help your child. When they’re struggling, it can be heartbreaking to watch and you may feel helpless.
If you have a neurodiverse child and you’re considering therapy, you may have heard about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other talk therapies. While these approaches can be effective for many children and young adults, they may not be suitable for everyone, especially those who are neurodiverse or have experienced trauma. Additionally, young children may struggle with traditional talk therapy methods.
But don’t worry, there are alternative approaches to therapy that can be just as beneficial. One approach that I find particularly helpful in my practice is Sandplay Therapy. It’s a unique and creative way to engage with your child and enhance communication.
The purpose of this blog is to discuss what it is and suggest ways to adapt it to enhance communication with your child.
What is Sandplay Therapy?
Sandplay therapy is a form of therapy where children use a tray filled with sand and various miniature objects to create scenes and stories. It is often called the World Technique, originating from Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973) and further developed by Frau Dora M. Kalff (1904-1990). I trained in it many years ago at the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education in London.
The purpose of sandplay therapy is to provide a safe therapeutic space for children to express and explore their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. It allows them to communicate and process their inner world in a non-verbal and symbolic way. Through the act of playing with the sand and manipulating the objects, children can externalise their internal struggles, conflicts, and desires.
What does Sandplay Therapy involve?
Generally, children do not have much power or choice in their lives. During sandplay therapy, children can take an active role in their healing process. Through repetition, individuals relive their experiences, aiding in their understanding and acceptance of what they have gone through. In sandplay therapy, symbols act as a vessel for a child’s emotions. The child can use the sand and symbols to construct scenarios or stories that depict their emotional encounters, struggles, or traumas. By externalising and applying symbols to work through these emotions, the child can gradually process and incorporate their feelings in a safe manner.
The therapist plays an important role in this process by observing the child’s internal world and helping them gain insight into their feelings and experiences. Through this playful approach, children can promote healing, self-discovery, emotional growth, and integration of their thoughts and feelings. It can also help them develop problem-solving skills, boost self-esteem, and improve their ability to manage their emotions.
Who can Sandplay Therapy help?
Sandplay therapy is particularly helpful for young people who struggle to express and talk about their feelings. Many children are unable to verbalise emotional states, particularly in the face of trauma or nerodivesirty. Furthermore, every child is developing the ability to communicate and control their emotions due to their developing emotional brain. It is important to keep in mind that their emotional brain does not fully develop until they are about 24 years old. Hence, while it can benefit many children, it can be especially beneficial for individuals who are neurodiverse, have learning challenges, or have experienced trauma.
I recently finished a long piece of therapy with a child who had ADHD and other contributing difficulties. The Sandplay method helped them process their understanding of the world and helped them overcome challenges with focus, attention, and anxiety. Thus allowing for a smooth transition to senior school. However, it’s important to note that sandplay therapy should be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for ADHD, including other therapeutic interventions and support from parents and teachers.
Sandplay therapy can be beneficial for children with ADHD and Learning Diificulties in several ways:
- Non-directive and sensory-focused: Sandplay therapy provides a non-directive and sensory-focused approach, allowing children with ADHD to engage in a calming and structured activity. Manipulating the sand can provide a calming and soothing tactile experience, while also aiding in developing patience and coping with frustration. This can help in improving focus and regulating sensory input.
- Self-expression and emotional regulation: Children with ADHD and learning difficulties often struggle with emotional regulation and expressing their feelings. Sandplay therapy provides a safe and non-threatening space for them to express their emotions and experiences through the creation of scenes and stories. It slows down communication too, giving time and space to organise thoughts, which can help with practicing better impulse control. This can help them develop a better understanding of their emotions and learn healthy ways to regulate and manage them.
- Symbolic representation: Sandplay therapy uses symbols and metaphors, allowing children to represent their inner world and experiences in a symbolic way. This can aid children with ADHD who struggle to articulate their thoughts and emotions, allowing them to communicate and gain understanding of their own experiences.
- Enhancing executive functioning skills: Children with ADHD and learning difficulties often struggle with executive functioning skills such as planning, organising, and problem-solving. Sandplay therapy can help improve these skills as children engage in creating scenes and staying with narratives, requiring them to plan, organise, and make decisions about the placement and movement of objects in the sand.
- Self-esteem and self-confidence: Engaging in sandplay therapy can boost self-esteem and self-confidence in children with ADHD and learning difficulties. As they create and manipulate their own narratives and scenes, they gain a sense of control and mastery over their environment. Additionally, this can help improve their self-image and belief in their own abilities.
Additional ways Sandplay Therapy may help children who have suffered trauma
It can be particularly beneficial for children who have experienced trauma. Here’s how it can help them:
- Non-verbal expression: Children who have experienced trauma may struggle to put their feelings into words. Sandplay therapy provides a non-verbal outlet for them to express their emotions.
- Sense of control: Trauma can leave children feeling powerless and out of control. In sandplay therapy, they have the opportunity to take charge and create their own world within the sand tray. This sense of control can be empowering and help them regain a sense of agency over their experiences.
- Emotional healing: Through the process of creating and interacting with the sand scenes, children can begin to explore and process their traumatic experiences. The therapist observes and supports the child’s internal exploration, helping them gain insight into their own feelings and experiences. This can lead to emotional healing, integration, and a sense of resolution.
When would Sandplay Therapy not be suitable
Given all the above points, there are certain situations or conditions where it may not be the most suitable approach. As a result, sandplay therapy may not be recommended:
- Severe cognitive impairment: children with severe cognitive impairments may have difficulty understanding and engaging in the symbolic nature of sandplay therapy. They may struggle to comprehend the purpose and process of the therapy, limiting its effectiveness.
- Sensory sensitivities: Some individuals with sensory sensitivities may find the tactile experience of playing with sand overwhelming or distressing. In these situations, alternative forms of art/ therapy that are not as focused on sensory experiences may be more suitable.
- Timing and Support of the Therapeutic Approach: All therapy should be supported. There are some occasions when therapy is not advised in the first instance. You can read more here, https://bristolchildparentsupport.co.uk/what-to-expect-fees/.
- Sometimes, a young person does not show interest or engagement in the sandplay process or therapy. It may not be the right therapeutic approach for them. In such cases, other therapeutic modalities that align better with their interests and preferences should be considered. Most therapists like myself have a range of therapeutic tools to use. If a child is not ready, then I often offer parenting advice in the first instance. For example, there is evidence to show that parent therapy can just be as helpful. You can read more about this in my blog Myth-Busting Anxiety.
How could you use the skills to help your child communicate thier fears
As a parent, you can use expressive play, which involves using toys and objects to create narratives and act out emotions, can be an effective tool in helping children process their fears. By engaging in imaginative play, children can express their feelings in a safe and non-threatening way.
If your child has a fear, allow them to take control of the situation and find a resolution. For example, if your child is afraid of monsters under the bed, suggest they create a story where they become the hero and defeat the monsters using their own ideas and strategies. You can also desensitise them to the scary part. For example, if your child is worried about intruders, they can imagine funny scenarios, such as intruders slipping on goo or marbles.
If you feel you or your child would benefit from therapy, Contact me for an initial consultation. Additionally, if you are an organisation who may want some therapeutic training.
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Disclaimer: The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional advice or therapy.
The content provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any mental health condition or replace the guidance of a licensed therapist or healthcare provider. It is important for parents to consult with a qualified mental health professional to assess their child’s specific needs and determine the most appropriate therapeutic approach. Using sandplay therapy or any other therapeutic modality should be based on individual circumstances and professional recommendations.