Leanne McAlarney from Portadown Wellness Centre talks to Stephanie Bell about sand play therapy
Sand trays and toys are helping children to play out their deepest fears through a new therapy now available at one of Northern Ireland’s leading mental health charities.
Leanne McAlarney has recently joined the team at Portadown Wellness Centre, where demand from parents to help their anxious children has soared post-pandemic.
Isolation and fear during lockdowns have had a profound impact on the numbers of young people presenting with mental health issues.
Leanne is part of a dedicated team of professional therapists who are struggling to keep up with demand at the Co Armagh clinic. She is also one of few therapists here trained in sand tray therapy.
It is a non-verbal, therapeutic intervention that makes use of a sandbox, toy figures, and sometimes water, to create scenes of miniature worlds that reflect a person’s inner thoughts, struggles and concerns.
It is practiced along with talking therapy, using the sandbox and figures as communication tools.
Leanne (41) from Castlewellan is also a qualified psychotherapeutic counsellor and hypnotherapist.
She has spent most of her career working for local health trusts, mainly with children.
Now running her own private practice from her home in Castlewellan, she has also joined the team at Portadown Wellness Centre where she works part-time.
One of few people in Northern Ireland qualified in Jungian sand tray therapy, she says she has been astonished by its results.
“I have seen powerful changes in children from the inside out using the sand trays,” she says.
“Just looking at the trays and what the children are creating in them shows the level of their distress, and as they work with the trays, you can see their progress and how they are changing and starting to heal.
“Sand tray therapy is recognised globally, but it is more prevalent in the south of Ireland than here in the north. It is used a lot in the development of self and the psyche, working on impulses and trauma stored within our memories.
“Sometimes talking therapy is not enough to access trauma.
“This is a creative form of therapy using sand and symbols which are intuitively chosen and have resonance for the client.
“The images within the tray can support processing and interpretation of material and experiences that cannot yet be expressed in words.”
Leanne, who has three children, Conan (19), Naimi (12) and nine-year-old Palia, trained at the Lynnbrook Centre, Annagassan, with Jean O’Kelly who is an accredited supervisor with the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Association for Jungian Sand Therapy in Ireland.
As part of her training, she had to use the sand tray for self-therapy and found it incredibly revealing.
She says: “We had to do our own self-analysis through the trays and I found myself overwhelmed by a multitude of emotions. The gravity of what the trays produce all comes from our subconscious.
“For me, it produced some profound generational female stuff in my family. Doing it gave me a firsthand understanding of the process and allowed to see the emotions that can arise.”
Portadown Wellness Centre, which was established to support people with a range of mental health issues, has been experiencing a massive uplift in the number of child clients directly linked to the impact of the pandemic.
In her private practice, Leanne has also seen a rise in younger clients.
She adds: “Many children attending post-Covid have exhibited increased generalised anxiety, difficulties in sleeping and somatic complaints (sore stomachs, sore heads), self-harming and restrictive eating patterns.
“These children have been supported until the local community mental health teams have become involved.
“Children have also exhibited social difficulties, an inability to maintain friendships, social isolation and withdrawal from normal activities they once enjoyed pre-Covid.”
One of the first children to benefit from the sand play therapy at the clinic in Portadown was an eight-year-old Co Down girl.
Her mum, who is a nurse, wants her child to remain anonymous.
She brought the girl to Leanne because of the distress and fear she was experiencing as a direct result of Covid.
The mum, who worked with Covid patients in the Nightingale hospital during the pandemic, explains: “My daughter definitely would be a bit of an over-thinker and worrier, but we had always been able to talk things through with her and reassure her.
“As with all kids throughout the pandemic, she was worried about catching Covid or about someone she knew catching it and dying from it.
“As it was constantly talked about everywhere and on the TV and radio, we stopped listening to the news. If something came on regarding Covid, we would switch it off as it caused her distress.
“There was also the additional worry of me working in the Nightingale hospital with Covid patients.
“We were constantly reassuring her that we were all healthy and that we were being very careful, especially me when I was at work.”
The protection from Covid news came to an end when schools reopened and her daughter was back out of the house.
Her mum says: “She became even more upset by what she was hearing.
“She would pick up on something that was said in school or something she just overheard out and about and turn it into a worst-case scenario.
“At the beginning, we were able to talk to and reassure her, but as time went on, she was constantly afraid that she was going to die.
“This turned into her having meltdowns, especially at bedtime and it took us a long time to settle and reassure her that this wasn’t the case.
“This quickly became a nightly thing and it began to affect her sleep as well as day-to-day life. It also had an effect on everyone in the house.
“She got to the stage where she didn’t want me to go to work as she was afraid something would happen to me.”
Her daughter’s condition continued to worsen, and when it got to the stage that she was frightened of dying in her sleep, her parents realised she needed professional help.
As the waiting lists for CAMHS was so long, they were relieved to be put in touch with Leanne by Portadown Wellness Centre.
Her mum adds: “The centre was extremely helpful and very supportive. My daughter has been going to Leanne once a week for around six months now and we have seen a big improvement in her.
“The sand play has encouraged her to open up and be able to talk about what she is worried or scared about.
“She doesn’t get as overwhelmed by things, and when she is feeling worried, she is confident enough to talk it through and can rationalise things much better.
“It has thankfully helped her become a much more confident and happier child in all areas of her life.”
The therapy involves giving children two sand trays — one with dry sand and the other with wet sand.
The tray is painted blue at the bottom and side to represent the sky or water, which facilitates the creative imagination.
The child (or adult) is invited to make an image in the sand using a variety of figures from people to animals, trees and vehicles.
Leanne explains: “Once completed, the client is invited to reflect upon the tray if they wish. There is an absence of interpretation by the therapist immediately after the creation.
“This is viewed as an essential component of the therapeutic work to protect the client from cues which may overwhelm them.
“The therapist continues to provide a safe space to facilitate healing and monitor further tray progression and healing.
“Usually, we do them in blocks of six and they we will then be reviewed with the parents. The second stage is when we start noticing positive progression and real changes.”
While many of our children will experience anxiety at different stages of growing up, not all will need the support of a professional.
Leanne says, as parents, there are some easy, yet crucial, things we can do at home to support our children and young people through their stressful times.
She says: “I think it is important to really listen to our kids and not minimise their experiences.
“I think parents should take time to sit with them, even if it is just for 10-15 minutes a day, to give them their attention and get a sense of what is happening for them, or just reconnecting with them again can be very powerful on its own.
“I’m a professional therapist and as a mum I know I am not perfect.
“I can talk the talk, but as a parent, I am not perfect.
“I don’t think it is about getting it right all the time.
“It’s about being present and allowing our children to discover themselves, knowing you are there ready to support them when they need you.”
If you are worried about someone’s mental health, you can get support by contacting Portadown Wellness Centre on 07545 373413 or contact Leanne on 07895 988941