Using the Sand Tray to Detect Family Roles

Here’s another interesting article submitted by reader Martha Nodar on the subject of sand tray therapy. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to childtherapytoys.com for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Bradshaw (1988) argues families are systems with systemic needs which are typically fulfilled, mostly unconsciously, by family members. These family members may become unwitting participants drawn into the family drama. In dysfunctional families triangles are common because they serve the purpose of providing a relief to the drama. In such cases, children and adolescents may unconsciously adopt roles within their family in order to survive their environment and help bring some balance to the scene. For instance, a so-called difficult child may be unconsciously acting-out the unspoken tensions within the parental dyad (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Fairy tales have a way of representing these family dynamics in a way that is both nonthreatening and entertaining. Sandtray also provides a safe forum to give a voice to the unspoken.

Sandtray and Fairy Tales

Lowenfeld (1993) suggests children see the world around them as “stories” that can be represented in the “tray” (p. 16). Lowenfeld argues fairy tales are an effective way to access two worlds at the same time—a fantasy world and one’s internal world through the use of metaphors. Drawn by her experience, Lowenfeld contends that children may enjoy fairy tales because “the rules of life within it are magical and different altogether from those at home” (p. 16). Fairy tales serve a purpose in cognitive and emotional development by giving children an opportunity to make sense of their world. Below is a sandtray activity that may be used with fairy tales designed to help the play therapist uncover the roles children or adolescents and their families may be playing within their family system.

Detecting Family Roles in the Sand (sand tray activity)

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  • Have the sandplayers first choose one of their favorite fairy tales and select miniatures to represent the story. Any fairy tale may be represented
  • The above image represents the Cinderella story. Cinderella is portrayed to the right. She was the daughter of a loving father and later became a congenial stepdaughter despite the way she was treated. A female sandplayer who may have adopted the Good Daughter role may identify with Cinderella
  • A father and a young daughter are featured in the center of the tray symbolizing the relationship Cinderella had with her loving father, but also symbolizing the safety children feel when they grow up in a nurturing environment. Sandplayers who have or wish they had such a relationship may identify with this miniature
  • The birds surrounding Cinderella and the Prince symbolize friends and companions. There may be sandplayers who may identify with the Friend or Companion role to a sibling or even to a parent. A male sandplayer may identify with the role of the Rescuer within the family and may be drawn to the Prince miniature
  • The Queen miniature symbolizes the evil stepmother. She is surrounded by two leopards, one on each side representing her two daughters, Cinderella’s stepsisters. Sandplayers may perceive themselves or someone in their family to be playing the role of the Queen or Leopard
  • Ask the sandplayers: “What do you know or remember from reading about this character?” How the fairy tale actually unfolds is not as important as how the sandplayer may recall or experience the story
  • Give sandplayers the choice of representing themselves in the scene by either:
    • Adopting the role of one of the miniatures already in the scene, or
    • By bringing a new miniature into the tray. Then ask; “What would this character do or not do?” Stay with the metaphors
  • Has the story changed? What role is the sandplayer now playing? What could be deciphered by the location and sequence of the miniatures?
  • Let us assume the sandplayer might have brought wild animals fighting with each other into the fairy tale activity. In such case, Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) suggest this may qualify as “An Aggressive World,” (p. 41), which may illustrate the sandplayer’s internal fear to expressing anger within his or her family system
  • Give the sandplayer the option to remove any or all of the miniatures from the scene. Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) argue a sandtray is considered an “Empty World” if two thirds or more of the tray has no miniatures” (p. 40). Children who grow up in dysfunctional families where they may feel unheard may come to adopt the role of the Lost Child (Bradshaw, 1988). A Lost Child is likely to create an Empty World sandtray to reflect his or her role in the family

Discussion

Each family has its own traditions, language, culture and routine. The different roles family members may adopt are unconsciously created and implicitly manifested to maintain the status quo and hence, protect an innate and universal fear of abandonment from one’s tribe. The problem with adapting a role is that the role may not be consistent with one’s real Self, but rather a modified self that may have been acquired out of a need to survive one’s environment. Sandtray therapists may become the sandplayer’s fellow traveler, sharing the tools to cope with life’s circumstances and for developing a differentiated Self from those tied to the family system. The goal is not to detach from the family, but to detach from participating in the family drama by refusing to play the roles dictated by a closed family system. Sandplay is a therapeutic tool ideal for symbolic archetypical journeys through the safety of metaphors.

References

Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Homeyer, L., & Sweeney, D. (2011). Sandtray therapy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kerr, M., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Lowenfeld, M. (1993). Understanding children’s sandplay: Lowenfeld’s world technique. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Sussex Academic Press.