During therapeutic play with children, therapists watch, listen, and interact during moments when a child may be giving voice to images, emotion, and story.
“Image” implies an object or person of attachment from the child’s past, “emotion” implies feelings from past relationships or that the child may be feeling in current relationships or in the moment, and “story” implies the coming together of a narrative that all children accumulate piece-by-piece over time.
As children work to make sense of their world, they often try on different ways to communicate meanings, experiences, and identity. Usually this work occurs in the context of ongoing parent-child relationships, through the form of brief questions and conversation, and meaningful experiences over years and years.
Sometimes a child’s context, when tumultuous, unpredictable, and even harmful, can deter such work and leave a child with only collected fragments of identity. Those fragments may be confusing and contradictory and may leave a child without the confidence that comes through securely attached relationships with caregivers.
Sandplay therapy and other forms of therapeutic play, both directive and nondirective, are tools in a process of nurturing more secure attachment bonds with caregivers and beginning a journey of co-construction of identity.abuse or neglect, begins to settle into a supportive family who can provide consistency and nurturance. Oftentimes families are surprised when a child responds to all their outpourings of love and support through varying modes of ambivalence or avoidance. In these cases, it is not only the child, but also the adults who have a tremendous amount to gain from experiencing the child’s underlying anxiety in a therapeutic context, deriving new, more positive and safe experiences, and working together to develop a new approach and a new narrative to coincide with it.
As therapeutic play facilitates relationship-bonding and identity co-construction with caregivers, volatile survival-oriented behaviors often decrease. The words of Susan Johnson, a leading proponent of emotionally focused therapies, ring in my ears: “Emotion must replace emotion.”
A caring, creative, and collaborative approach assists such children and their families—and in the cases of adoption, their new families—in launching a journey of defragmentation, meaning-making, and identity formation that may have for years been delayed by a focus on more primal needs.
Over time, caregivers have opportunities to become more involved and less involved in the child’s play as it feels comfortable to them and to the child.
As children participate in sandplay therapy, I make a point to remain only peripherally engaged in their play, allowing them to take control of their play worlds with minimal interference. I often mirror the degree of participation of caregivers in the room. Over time, caregivers have opportunities to become more involved and less involved in the child’s play as it feels comfortable to them and to the child.
These new fragments of experience and exploration, in the safe presence and amidst dialogue from caregiver(s) and counselor, are building blocks in this co-construction of identity. Images, emotion, and story can emerge in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.
Much of the work of this co-construction is already occurring by this time in the context of a new, safe, and more predictable family home environment. The families supporting these children should be encouraged by signs that emotional and social development is roaring down the tracks once again, much due to the fuel of their care and affections.
Gil, E. and Sobol, B. (2000). “Engaging families in therapeutic play.” In C.E. Bailey (Ed.), Children in Therapy: Using the Family as a Resource. NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
© Copyright 2010 by Blake Edwards. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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