No Words Needed - Sand Tray Therapy

The Start360 DAISY (Drug & Alcohol Intervention Service for Young People) service works with young people aged 11-25 living with substance misuse. It can be very challenging for these young people (and us adults) to talk openly about what has happened in their lives. DAISY practitioners use a range of interventions, including talking therapies, with young people to promote greater insight into life experiences and feelings. One of these interventions is Sand Tray Therapy - an amazing intervention where words do not have to be spoken.....

Hi, my name is Pauline O’Reilly. I am a Counsellor on the Public Health Agency funded DAISY North service with Start360 which has been delivered in partnership with ASCERT since 2015. I have worked as a Counsellor since 2002. I want to tell you a little about how I use the sand tray as a therapeutic intervention with some of the young people I work with. I completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Therapeutic Play in 2013 and from then I have used play therapy when appropriate and in agreement with the young person.

Those of you who work with children and adolescents will know how difficult it can be for them to talk openly about what has happened in their lives and how they are feeling. They often feel misunderstood by adults and can be reluctant to talk about their problems. Adolescents would very rarely hold conversations with adults, therefore when they find themselves in a room with a counsellor it can be a very daunting experience.

Adolescence is very difficult stage in a young person’s life due to the emotional and biological changes. The part of their brain (prefrontal cortex) for emotional control, problem solving and planning has not yet been fully developed and this can create a higher risk for mental health issues. We must remember that young people are not mini adults and traditional talking therapy does not always work.

We also need to be careful using sand try as young people can feel awkward or reluctant. They may associate sand and toy (symbols) to be for children. I set up the tray and place the symbols in their different categories, such as vehicles, fantasy, family etc. They are placed so they can have easy reach, and all is clear for the young person to see. I then invite them to tell me about their world using the symbols by placing them in the sand. At this stage they usually begin to relax, and are often relieved to know they do not need to talk or explain to me what is happening.

I encourage the young person to interact with the sand tray on their own and I observe what is happening as they use the symbols. I look at how they take time to add or remove symbols from the tray. During this process of play it is believed they are externalising their inner thoughts, which allows them to become involved in a non-verbal medium of conversation therapy. The sand tray helps the young person to become more mindful as they blend memories, fantasies, desires, and emotions in a safe and non-judgemental way.

If the young person feels they have been pressured into attending counselling and they do not have any interest in being there, I would explore this and encourage them to think of a symbol that best describes how they feel about being here. I could also ask if they might like to choose something that represents the problems their drug use is having on their life. If I feel from observation that a young person needs more structure, I will encourage them to think of a symbol that best describes how they see themselves, or significant others in their life and place them in the sand tray. At the end of the session the young person is free to talk about what they have done and I would then give them the opportunity to take a picture of the sand tray to reflect on after the session.

I believe the sand tray promotes a greater insight into their feelings and encourages independence and understanding over their own problems. You will see from the pictures my sand tray and a variety of the symbols I have. For each session, I bring a selection of symbols which I feel are appropriate for that young person.

For more information on using sand tray therapy please visit:  Play Therapy UK

For more information on the DAISY service please visit: DAISY