Family therapy and the use of sandtrays

I attended a weekend component of my course yesterday and today on family therapy and the use of sandtrays. It is generally held by those in the know that the birth of Family Therapy method occurred around the middle of the 1950s.  It is, therefore, very recent.  Previously all psychological problems were primarily seen as individual based. 

Gregory Bateson was the leading figure in the schizophrenia research project in Palo Alto, California, which had a strong impact in shaping the course of family therapy. Systemic Family Therapy, or the Milan Model, emphasises a prescriptive and paradoxical approach based on systems theory. Mara Selvini-Palazolli and her associates in Milan are credited with developing this method. Systemic Family Therapy operates by using a team interview with two members of the team conducting the interview while other members of the team observe from behind a two-way mirror, subject of course to such available resources.

Some interesting quotes:

Working with children and families is like rehearsal for the possible” – Margot Sutherland, author of The Science Of Parenting.

The more unconscious a family the more it lives in a state of participation mystique and the greater the power of projection” – Carl Jung.

See here for family therapy definitions. Most families are dysfunctional.  We are all trying to do our best based on our limitations. The most dysfunctional families lack the ability to develop the qualities to meet challenges.

I completed a genogram this weekend and was reminded about some vital family constellations throughout history.  A genogram resembles a family tree but it includes additional relationships among individuals. There are a group of symbols used in a genogram. The usefulness of completing one is to identify the repeated patterns in family history.  My grandparents were brought up at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland.  Socio economic factors can be crucial factors when assessing the patterns in families.

So what is a healthy family?  Well, in a nutshell, adjusted families are amenable to change and adopt to difficulties.

The use of sandtrays in psychotherapy is a play therapy intervention that can be used with children and adults. There is a similarity with play therapy in that clients can express themselves metaphorically. It is amazing what the unconscious sends us in the form of symbols. It is generally acknowledged that the processing phase of humanistic sandtray therapy is more verbal than play therapy with preoperational children.  However the use of metaphor is similar to play therapy. It is therefore a natural fit for play therapists to use sandtray with older clients. Sand has an ancient quality as well as an obvious earth quality.

What was striking to me was the serene interplay in the weekend group.  Students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to engage in non verbal play. For me, I always struggle as an air type with the feeling component of group work and can struggle to stay engaged with the process.  Fortunately, however, my small group comprised of individuals very much in touch with their feelings and so I was able to get in touch with some deep personal stuff.

Sand-trays are now commonly used in CAMHS in the NHS and in children’s charity Kid’s Company.


The British and Irish Sandplay Society
The Association of family therapy in the UK
The Sandtraytherapyinstitute 
Milan systemic family therapy
Sandplay therapists of America

Counselling London

About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s