Their offices are overflowing with toys, hair gel, buckets of sand, games, art supplies, yarn babies, and puppets. And sitting atop their cubicle walls like soldiers at attention are plastic bottles of viscous fluid and glitter...slowly, slowly settling to the bottom.
Whereas Freud had his couch, the therapy crew at Child Saving Institute use these items as their "tools of the trade"—the trade of healing children who are struggling to overcome neglect and abuse.
Sensory bottles or “calm down” bottles as they’re sometimes called. When the child is struggling, the therapist shakes the bottle and the child is asked to calm down, relax, and get control of their emotions for the length of time it takes for the glitter to settle to the bottom.
Messy with a method
Providing therapy to children is different than providing traditional therapy to adults. Children and adolescents are generally not able to sort through their thoughts and may not share their experiences using words. Instead, they often express their thoughts and feelings best through their behaviors. Child Saving Institute Clinical Services Supervisor Joanna Halbur and the other therapists on her team rely on a variety of specialized trainings for their work with children who have experienced trauma. Four of our therapists recently added another invaluable training to their therapeutic arsenal when they completed a 10-month course on Play Therapy.
Although she is constantly looking for new creative play activities through sources like Pinterest, Halbur says she has found the sand tray to be particularly helpful. With the sand tray, the child creates a world using miniatures that have meaning to them.
Over the course of several months, the therapists are able to see progress as the children make breakthroughs. For example, burying figurines can often represent buried secrets, or fences may represent blocking off a disturbing memory. A totally empty sand tray can mean an empty life or depression. Once their sand tray stage is "set," Halbur asks them to give their sand tray world a title, and then tell the story behind it. For her part, Halbur listens and asks questions, but always stays in the metaphor to help the child retain a safe distance, asking "How does the little girl feel?" rather than saying "you."
At the conclusion of the session, she takes pictures of the sand tray to accompany her notes. She also asks the child if there is anything they would like to change—something they are often eager to do. When the child returns the following week, she has noticed they have been thinking about their story and may choose to share another scene revealing yet another part of their trauma. "It keeps the painful stuff at a distance but, at the same time, allows them to talk about it," she explains.
One child’s sand tray. The mom figure is fenced off, separated by a jail cell and blocked by trees. She is surrounded by cigarettes, alcohol bottles, and a buried pill, which may mean a hidden addiction issue. Bright colored stones surround the little girl, father, grandmother, and baby in safety. They are all facing toward each other—representing closeness and support. Other nurturing symbols include balloons, a heart, a dog, and a guardian angel.
"It definitely gets messy in the play therapy room," she says with a smile. "There’s a lot of vacuuming going on after sessions."
The sand tray can be therapeutic in other ways, too.
Working through abuse and neglect
Nora, 4, stands silently at the tray, grabbing handfuls of the smooth, cool sand and letting it trickle through her fingers. Though her outbursts and tantrums are legendary, the sand soothes her as Halbur gently prompts her to unlock some of the secrets behind the more than 50 scars and marks that cover her small, thin body.
Nora and her younger brother were removed from their home because they were routinely beaten with a looped nylon rope—just one of the means of punishment meted out by their drug-addicted mother. Now, Joanna and an extraordinarily patient and nurturing foster mom, Annie, work together to help the children feel safe, secure and loved. Joanna explains that over the past six months she has been helping Annie try to build attachment with the little ones—a key to creating successful relationships going forward. One of the methods Annie uses is the "Lotion Song." Just as Joanna taught her, Annie sings a song while Nora gently rubs lotion into her hands and feet. Then Annie rubs the lotion into Nora’s hands and feet.
"Human touch helps build attachment," Joanna explains. "They need to associate touch with safety. And it was especially important for Nora to be able to give and receive loving touch from another person because she had always been the one who took care of her brother." In addition, Nora has started allowing Annie to gently rub lotion on her everyday boo boos, like a scraped knee or pinched finger, in an exercise known as "fixing hurts." She doesn’t yet allow Annie to rub lotion on her scars—that will take more bonding and healing.
A little less-messy technique: just breathe…
Like Halbur, Therapist Katie Ladd uses the techniques she’s learned through Play Therapy, but has also introduced a holistic, meditation-based approach to help her young clients learn to relax and soothe their past trauma and current painful emotions.
"In school, we want kids to sit still and be good at listening to instructions and following specific tasks," Ladd notes. "But to get to the learning, you have to take care of the other levels first. Kids who have experienced trauma in early life have to get back to basic sensory foundations before they can get to higher level processing."
Ladd has introduced a child’s yoga game into her practice, where the child draws a card and tries to hold the designated pose for 10 seconds. "When people do yoga, it reconnects the mind and body, and when you can get two of the three in sync, then you can work on emotions. It gives the kids a sense of control and it’s empowering."
Another tool Ladd uses is the five-senses dice box. The child rolls the dice and then shares something they see in the room, or a sound they hear. "It’s an anchoring technique that brings them into the present," she explains. "It allows them to identify what’s happening NOW, and allows them to feel safe, secure and confident enough to get to the source of the trauma."
To make a therapy appointment, please email Amy Paulsen at firstname.lastname@example.org