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sandbox therapy

My sandbox therapy in trauma recovery

by Matt Pappas

Therapy is not something that one would normally refer to as “fun”, but every once in a while a break from the norm during a session can yield some interesting results and put a different kind of smile on your face. This was the second time that I used sandbox therapy as a tool to visualize in my own way, where I see myself in my recovery journey to date.

I was shocked tonight during a therapy session when we went into a different room and there was the sandbox. Well it’s not literally a big sandbox, but one of those shallow plastic storage bins, filled about 1/3 of the way with sand.

The idea is to use your imagination and whatever props are available to make a creation in the sand that depicts where you are now, where you started, and what you think the future of your recovery looks like. There are other reasons for sandbox therapy, but this is why I was doing it. I was able to use little pieces of sea glass, action figures, animals, fish, small fences, toy army men, Disney characters, etc.

Here is what I created, that took me about 20 minutes or so. You can click to enlarge it. sandbox therapy 1

The castle in bottom left corner is me, where I started out at. The drawbridge is up, there are guards around the castle. The Giraffe represents my ex-wife (she loves Giraffe’s). The green pieces of sea glass are the path.  The tiger standing near the castle is the perpetrator who sexually abused me. The red robot represents the bully’s I encountered during late elementary and middle school. If you look close you can see a small white figurine that is being stepped on by the bully. That’s me and how I felt at that time in my life, totally humiliated and buried beneath my own inadequate life.

The turtle on the path is me. I like turtles but it also symbolizes my recovery journey as being slow. All of that stuff is behind me now. It doesn’t mean that I’ve healed completely from those events, but it symbolizes that I’m trying to move forward and that now my recovery journey has taken on a new twist with a new obstacle.

That new obstacle that is blocking my path is a figure that represents my mother and the cross behind her is her using religion to scare me. That is how I felt/feel about her using the Bible as a weapon to scare me. If you notice her finger is pointing at me as if to say, “turn back now and change your ways”. I’ll get back to that in the next picture. 

Just beyond my mother is an army guy who is pointing ahead. He symbolizes my support system encouraging me to look forward and keep going.

Beyond that is a lighthouse, which symbolizes hope. A sign that I’m on the right path and I’m making progress, but also to be wary of what is ahead. You’ll notice a scorpion concealed in the sand near the lighthouse. That symbolizes a new memory currently still buried in my mind that I may not be aware of yet, just ready to surface and pounce on me. My minds way of warning me to be vigilant and prepared for the unexpected. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword though and is part of my hyper vigilance.

The tiger hiding behind the log, just out of eye’s view as I round the bend on my journey represents the hidden danger that still may lie in my head from the sexual abuse. There may be more memories that I haven’t uncovered yet and could catch me off guard at any time.

The two popsicle sticks standing up represent unknown barriers that could be totally new and unrelated to anything I’ve experienced so far. They are plain, not flashy, but standing tall as a reminder to me that there will always be barriers to over come in the future.

Finally just as I round the bend to the promised land of Empowerment; depicted by the cookie monster, the palm tree, the wall, and the army guys of support around me, there is one last obstacle.  This is the perfect storm of everything that I’ve suffered in my life; everything that I’ve fought through in my journey. It’s right in front of the gate to empowerment and trying everything possible to keep me from no longer being bound my past. Also to make me feel boxed in, trapped if you will. I can’t go forward nor can I go back.

Oh yes, the Lion is me. That is how I see myself some day. Strong, powerful, able to handle anything that comes my way. The army guys are my support system who will always be there just in case.

What did I learn from this. Well mainly that I have a lot of irrational fear of what lies ahead. Therefore I need to continue working hard and being dedicated to recovery so I don’t succumb to the fears of the future.

So how do I move past the current obstacle of my mother, standing right in my path? The reason she is there is because that is still happening now. sandbox therapy in healing from traumaWell, notice this picture and you’ll see that Spiderman, hey, he’s cool, is standing in front of the turtle, me, and now is inside a wedge that is powering through the mother wounds and her invalidation of me. This is where I need to see myself. Using that wedge as a way to drive forward and be able to overcome any future roadblocks.

Sandbox therapy can be a powerful tool because you are visually depicting where you see yourself. When used with the help of a professional, it’s a good way to see how far you’ve come and what you need to work on.


I’d love your thoughts on this in the comments, including if you’ve ever done sandbox therapy.


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Don June 10, 2016 - 10:24 am

I love this. What a wonderful exercise. I remember creating a big poster board that I have somewhere (it used to hang on my wall). It basically had one long winding path that went from one side to the other. On one side was where I was and the other side was where I wanted to be. As days went by, I would place little pictures to describe those two areas. Then on the path I would put boulders in it and name them with what the boulder was about. I need to get that out again and try to share that. It was a powerful exercise for me and probably 1 of a million ideas my therapist at the time tried to get me to embrace. I was often defiant. She just kept giving me ideas until one stuck!

I can so relate on the religion thing (little different context, but still the same). The bible was meant to keep us in line and if that didn’t work, the minister showed up to really let us know how angry God was with us. God was many different people in those days from the abusers to the minister to all the church people.

Matt June 10, 2016 - 11:06 am

I would love to see that poster you made sometime Don, that’s right up the same alley as the sandbox therapy. If you ever decide to share it please let me know.

I can relate to the trying to different things in therapy too. Not everything works for everyone and I know all too well about being reluctant to try something, or trying it and finding out how much I hated it. Perhaps because it just hit home too much or it just wasn’t for me.

The whole religion topic is something I struggle with now still, I am just now beginning to learn how much I resisted it and why I resisted it. When you use the Bible or any religion as a scare tactic or something to try and force down the throat of someone, the results are never what they were intended to be when used correctly.

Don June 10, 2016 - 11:19 am

I will try to find it as I’ve got it tucked away for safe keeping. It was hung on my wall so every day I could see it and that helped me so much.

Religion is hard for me. I’m just getting where I can discuss it without being hurtful or hateful myself. Yet, there is so much of what I went through intertwined in it that its hard to see it in a normal way. I’m discovering my sense of “spirituality” which is much different then religion and it works for me in my own way. I could write for weeks on this subject and still never find the end.

Joy Richardson June 10, 2016 - 11:58 pm

You must be getting some top-knotch expensive innovative therapy, Matt. I’ve never been in a therapy session where this much time and resources have been put into it. Amazing.

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laslynda September 11, 2016 - 4:27 pm

Hi Matt and Don thanks for sharing guys i love this as a visual learner right up my street. I too had done a visual thing of painting a tree and putting where i have been in words were i am and were im going to but it was more to think about future that my abuse i went through. I used to have the same problems as you with my mother entwined with religion ive cut all contact now which i feel good about. It is a struggle when the religion/bible are used to abuse you struggle in your life and spirituality and my belief. I think to connect to your inner child for some using therapy as a play or art or writing can be so much safer in dealing with the strong emotional states you have to go through. Do you think this way is easier because like you this kind of therapy actual works and is safe Lynda

Thanks for sharing guys take care your helping me thank you it is appreciated take care kind regards Lynda

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deborahbyrnepsychologyservices February 16, 2017 - 5:25 am

Thank you such a powerful blog. I loved your honesty, sincerity & I really get where you’re coming from where you hope to get to. Keep going, never give up You deserve so much. love & light Deborah

theresadutcher October 10, 2017 - 7:18 am

we just published articles about that too. we have our own sandbox at home and use it a lot for the work with our DID system. priceless. one of the best tools we ever worked with. I am glad it is becoming more popular.

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