Silvia Camastral PhD

Psychotherapy Counselling - Individuals - Couples - Supervision Training

Article on Process - Oriented Play Therapy

(also known as ‘Process Work’)

© Copyright - Silvia Camastral.

No Small Change: Process-Oriented Play Therapy

For Children of Separating Parents

This article looks at a process-oriented play therapy for children adversely affected by parental peparation.

Process-oriented play therapy is a therapeutic method that involves the therapist directly entering the ‘world of play’ with the child, by amplifying various modes of expression and helping underlying meaning to emerge, in order to help children access aspects of their life they feel they have no say in. One particular case has been used as an example, involving ‘Jim’ (pseudonym) and his mother, who attended the play therapy session.

It’s nothing new. Play therapy and art therapy are two wellknown approaches in helping children to express themselves. And it is no different for children who are suffering the effects of their parents’ separating. This large change in the family can create fear, anger and a sense of helplessness in children who are grieving for a home that once was (Harland, 2002; Hetherington, 1989, 1992).

As a therapist, I have worked successfully with children affected in this way using a process-oriented approach. Process-oriented sessions produce astounding results, and bring new meaning to the term ‘the art of onversation’. Process-Oriented Psychology (also Process Work), developed by Arnold Mindell (1985), is a holistic and experiential therapy, which addresses the totality of a person’s moment-to-moment flow of experience.

Mindell’s philosophical background is in Jungian Psychology, and Taoism, which assumes that whatever happens is part of a meaningful process of change and transformation. This means that even problems and disturbances in a relationship may contain value that, when explored, can bring new potential for growth to all involved.

Parental Separation

Parental separation changes a child’s world and demands a huge adaptation from the child. This adaptation can be to a new living situation — possibly moving house, living with a single parent, or living in two homes at different times of the week. It can also mean adaptation to new people in the family — stepparents, and step- or half-siblings. These changes can be demanding for all concerned, but particularly for children who haven’t been part of the decision-making process. It is not uncommon for the child to start having temporary symptoms such as nightmares, fear of monsters or other phenomena, as a consequence of feeling overwhelmed by these changes. Children’s visions, frightening in themselves, often involve experiences of being chased or pursued by big threatening things or animals.
These nightmares and terrors show how their sense of powerlessness can lead children to feel completely outside themselves in this separation process (Mindell, 1987).

But not all children feel like this. Some show incredible resilience in adaptation and an acceptance of their new situations. Many children find strong support in their friends, peers, neighbouring families, uncles, aunties and family friends. When asked, some children reveal that for them,‘family’ can include friends, pets and close neighbours with whom they feel a connection and support. The idea of family is clearly a subjective concept and its boundaries can be set differently by children and adults (Moore & Beazley, 1996).

Gary Reiss (2001) highlights how each instance of separation and divorce is an individual process, and how valuable it can be when all the family members are sympathetic to each other during the transition. Reiss quotes his six-year-old daughter, who describes her new family situation as ‘not too close and not too far’. When asked by her friends about her parents’ relationship, she answers,‘My parents are very close and will always be friends, but they aren’t as close as they used to be’ (2001: 53).

Play Therapy

In a safe environment, a child’s concerns can surface while playing, or being encouraged to play. Offering the child a world of stories, magic and play invites open expression of these concerns. Various play therapy methods focus on the value of following the child’s natural process of play — creating stories through fantasy and visual expression. When the therapist uses imagery and imaginative interpretations, the child’s natural ego development and healing powers can be strengthened (Linden, 2003).

Heins (1988) explains how through relearning ‘childthink’ we can understand more about how children perceive their world, and through play create new ways for them to communicate their perceptions. A child’s play reveals both the child’s concerns and his/her preferred way of working with them. Externalising inner conflicts and feelings through play, for example using figurines to create the story, is fun and helpful for children and adults alike. Similarly Larner (1996) integrates play and spoken narratives to reveal the child’s understanding of certain family issues and how best to approach them.

Play and art can often provide a storehouse of energy, symbolic meaning and creativity. Assisting children to create stories with interacting characters can be a window to their feelings, needs and concerns (Schuitevoerder, 1993). When children express their understanding of their experience this can lead to changes in their behaviour and feelings. Initially, these changes in their play can appear either subtle, or overt.

Later on, interpreting to the child the meaning of his/her shifts in play and behaviour can help to anchor and develop these changes. The work then depends on the child taking the next step in transferring the new behaviour in his/her play characters to his/her real life circumstances, both enjoyable and conflicted. This process reinforces the internal changes that the child is experiencing.

Children are likely to resist adult interpretations at these ages; for example, ‘I see you are feeling more powerful as a lion here, than in your life at home’ but it is more helpful to enter their story and say, ‘Ohoo this lion looks pretty strong and makes some wild sounds, I wonder what it might want to say …’

The work often leads to shifts in the child’s play, which operates on the symbolic level. In many instances children find meaning by staying in the ‘world of play’ and the meaning is experienced through the child’s identification with the figurines or toys and through the therapist’s interaction. This helps the child experience new aspects of him/herself, find a voice or access power in a safe way. Some children just laugh and feel relieved at the end of a session, not wanting to be bothered by integrative comments or questions. Others ask lots of questions and create new meaning from linking the ‘play’ story back to their lives.

Either way, symbolic action in therapy can recreate the child’s realities and reshuffle his/her internal psychology in a meaningful, positive and creative way.

Symbols and Conversation

Play is the natural language of children. Adults who engage through play with children’s symbolic world can share their language. And in that language, using toys, names and actions, adults can assist a child to find new ways of dealing with fears and concerns. More specifically, process-oriented play helps children to communicate their experience by‘playing’ in both verbal and non-verbal modes. Non-verbal
modes are particularly helpful with smaller children who may have little opportunity to express their emotional and physical feelings, and have them acknowledged as meaningful.

Process-oriented play therapy differs from other play therapy approaches in the way the therapist helps by amplifying sounds, movements or other signals played out through a figurine (secondary process aspects), in order to help the underlying meaning emerge and to assist in creating a new identification process (primary process).

The symbols and themes can be teased out therapeutically in different modalities; for example, a drawing or painting; drama and role-play with puppets and toys; or choice and use of figurines in a sand tray. The therapist can enrich the work with dialogue if appropriate (Schuitevoerder, 1996). Watching two figurines attack each other in the sand tray might suggest an unresolved relationship interaction, (possibly between parents or siblings). As the therapist ‘sprinkles’ in some sounds and verbal content, the child can develop a conversation in the role-play, and the story can become a conversation about the child’s issues with parents, siblings and stepparents.

Seeing which figures the child chooses to represent his/her family members and observing how they interact can be enlightening for parents, and gives them information far beyond what they could glean in an ordinary conversation. For example, one boy in my therapy session used a scorpion to represent his father, explaining, ‘Because he yells a bit and I don’t like it’. The father, who came into the room at the end of the session to see what the boy had created, was shocked. His way of communicating with his son seemed to change after that. The next time the boy made a sand tray story, he chose a lizard as his father. ‘Dad is a lot better now … he’s a lizard now… a lounge lizard’, the boy said. He laughed, while setting the lizard on a toy seat.

Similarly Arad (2004) described a story-telling method in family therapy, asking children what animal they would choose to represent their parents and other family members.

This helps family members to view dynamics in a more symbolic way and through the child’s eyes.
Not only through play with figurines, but also through symbolic actions in the therapy room, children give powerful messages that create shifts in their family. Scott describes parents trying to decide who should come to the therapysession next time.

‘Just when negotiations reached an impasse, the infant took his first independent steps from his mother to his father.’ A moment later the child walked to the therapist. His mother said ‘That’s it, we all come here together’ (1999: 92).

Process-Oriented Psychology and Family Therapy Process Work’s underlying principle is that nature has an implicit drive towards wholeness. Arnold Mindell, the founder of process-oriented psychology, created a theoretical framework using the opposite of psychoanalytic terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ process to track the flow of experience and change. The ultimate purpose of this tracking is to allow that natural sense of wholeness to be created. The terms primary and secondary were originally Freud’s; ‘primary process’ originally meant the primal aspects of the subconscious (unconscious), and ‘secondary process’ the ‘conscious/egoic’. Mindell (1985) reverses these terms.

For Mindell, ‘primary process’ relates to all the aspects of our experience we identify with (conscious aspects). ‘Secondary process’ relates to aspects we don’t personally identify with, experiences that are somehow separated from us, such as accidental, unintended events, slips of the tongue, relationship issues such as interpersonal conflict, difficult behaviours, somatic symptoms, etc. (unconscious aspects).

We can recognise primary process statements by the use of‘I’. For example: I have red hair, I am feeling tired, I am a child/man/woman. With secondary process, the experiences that happen to us that we don’t identify with are often expressed through the use of ‘it’. For example it irritates me, it (the headache) is draining me.

Primary process (our more conscious identity) and secondary process (the less conscious aspects of ourselves) are divided by what Mindell calls ‘the edge’. The edge is often created by our belief systems and can be experienced as a resistance to exploring secondary process. You might be discussing an issue and find that you are getting bored, feeling distracted, or discover that you are trying to change the topic. This might mean that you are at an ‘edge’, or a block to exploring unconscious aspects of yourself.

Whereas many therapeutic approaches find ways to get rid of a problem or an unwanted experience, Process Work goes the other way and sees value in exploring unintended, accidental or scary experiences. Whereas psychoanalytic thought is causal and sees these experiences as products of repressed material from the past, Process Work has a teleological view and sees these disavowed experiences as potential for the future development of the self.

Much like the Jungian idea of dreams assisting the conscious mind in understanding the unconscious (so a natural wholeness can then express itself ), Process Work sees disturbing and disavowed experiences as a message from the secondary process to the primary process. Through exploration of disturbances and problems in a non-judgemental and careful way, new meaning, strengths and potential for change can be uncovered. This can lead to growth and expansion for the individual, couple or family.

Reiss (1993) explains that a child’s behaviour is often seen as ‘the problem’ and a disturbance to the rest of the family. Process Work sees a family system as a whole and the disturbance of one member as carrying a symptom or secondary process to the whole family system. Very much in line with systemic thought, Process Work sees the symptom as an indication of potential for positive change and growth.

When a child’s difficult behaviour is explored through play and interaction, the unfolded information can be a meaningful message, challenging the whole family to grow to a new level.

As Heins observes, children in family therapy often pick up cues to an adult’s distress even when no relevant words have been spoken (1988: 144). Reiss illustrates this fact when describing a family situation where divorcing parents both put painful feelings aside and made an effort to be kind to each other. They brought their child to therapy because of his aggressive behaviour towards his brother.

Through the therapy it became clear that he was acting out the suppressed aggression felt by both of the parents towards one another. Once the parents got in touch with their own hurt and anger, and expressed (in an empowering way), how hurt and angry they were with each other, the divorce could progress, and the child no longer needed unconsciously to perform ‘acts of power’, like hitting his
brother (1993: 64).

Process-Oriented Play Therapy

Process-oriented play therapy contributes to therapeutic work with children in several ways. One of its most important contributions is the use of therapist awareness to track thematic information found in communication signals embedded in children’s play (Mindell, 1987). These signals and themes often occur recurrently throughout the play and often embody a great deal of information about the child’s concerns.

Schuitevoerder (1992) sets out ways to invite lighthearted interaction between the therapist and child while playing with a sand tray. At times, the therapist aims to expand on the play that the child is creating in the tray.

Schuitevoerder describes how one of her ten-year-old clients was creating a war with the use of warrior figurines. The therapist started to pace the child by making ‘war noises’ herself, to which the child reacted positively. She then encouraged him to play the warrior himself — using the therapist (protected by a pillow) as a target. The child was delighted and within the play found new energy and a release of pent up emotions and frustrations. In further sessions, the child was able to connect with internalised feelings of anger and sadness about his father’s death. Young children roughly up the age of nine or ten easily follow their theme or story through different modes of experience (channels). For example, a child may start out by drawing of an airplane (visual channel), then make sounds for the airplane (auditory) and then make flying movements (kinaesthetic) as well as sounds, and eventually the childmoves around like an airplane himself. The process-oriented therapist follows the natural flow of the child’s interest through theme changes, impasses and ‘hot-spots’, or ‘edges’.

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