I have heard some cautions regarding sandplay with adolescents. The issue of possibly interfering with the constellation of the Self, which leads to ego development as defined by Eric Newman, has been a topic in consultation groups. My experience has been that ego strength may have been enhanced through identity exploration during the sandplay process. The discovery, expression, and defining of the self in the trays of adolescent clients has been remarkable to witness.
Now, to get adolescence to “play” in the sand is another matter. If they were young and at the beginning of their teens, they were more willing to create a scene or do a series of trays. I also found female teen clients were more drawn to the tray than male teens. Creative types were usually eager to explore another media or avenue of expression.
In light of the developmental tasks of adolescents, I found their scenes were helpful and added another dimension to my understanding of the level of difficulty related to their mastering a particular task or stage. In viewing the tray, I looked for information regarding the tasks of separation, social competence, and the developing sense of self. The ways in which a client reveals their developmental stage or task might be through the use of symbolic imagery, items, or action in the tray or might be portrayed with items more like their real word world parents, peers, or easily identifiable self objects.
The issue of separation might be shown with the placement of parent-child dyads and might be represented by pairs of animals or humans. If there is a separation anxiety issue, the figures may be overly close or bonded. Are the figures placed together in the tray and relating to each other? Are they combative or distant? As an adjunct to the information shared by both parents and adolescents, I may be able to determine the unspoken nature of the relationship as shown in the tray. The scene or series of sandplay trays may reveal the level of separation struggle for the teen (and possibly the experience of the teen of their parent’s ability to allow separation to be mastered by the adolescent).
For adolescents, social interaction throughout middle and high school can be the focus of their existence or be the bane of their existence. In early adolescence, to “fit in” is the goal. In later years, finding a group to “hang” with is optimal. For teens who do not find peers to interact with, adolescence can be lonely and painful. It is okay to be different, as long as you have someone to be different with.
Usually, if teens were feeling accepted by peers or have found a group to connect to, the issue of social competence may not be represented in a scene. Feelings of isolation may show up in sandplay as a lone figure or item. Animals may be outcasts or apart from the group. The scene may look or feel bleak. A figure may appear to be alone in a crowd of figures or may appear to be defeated.
A developing sense of self may be revealed by the choice, placement or “groundedness” of the figure or item. What objects or figure has been chosen? Have the miniatures and sandplay experience enhanced the formation of the self and made it more conscious? Does the item chosen more concretely represent the self? Where is the miniature placed? Is it in the center of a tray? Does the item have a sense of groundedness? By this I mean the way in which the item or figure is placed in the tray. Is it tentatively set on the sand or firmly placed?
While there are many ways to interpret and understand sandplay scenes, my experience with adolescents was that it was helpful for me to ask myself these additional questions related to developmental issues. When working with adults needing to complete or to master adolescent developmental tasks, I also kept these questions in mind.