Fragment of the speech at the seminar in Moscow Academy of Practical Psychology,
Moscow, 2015
Vera Ščerbakova

Dora Maria Kalff worked with children a lot and attached great importance to their developmental features as well as disorders. At her seminars, the founder of the sandplay therapy method, according to her students, said: it is necessary to study Jung’s theory in order to learn how to determine the stage of development of the client and “know where the healing will come from.”

Dora Kalff appreciated the theory of early mental development by Erich Neumann, which he first introduced to the public in 1973 in his book “The Child: Structure and Dynamics of the Nascent Personality”. E.Neuman himself did not deal with the treatment of children, but D.Kalff worked with children and her experience confirmed Neumann’s theory and was appropriate for explaining healing and transformation processes in sandplay therapy.

D.Kalff borrowed from E.Neumann the idea that the Self, the organizer and regulator of the psyche, is the leading force of mental development from the very birth of man. According to D.Kalff, there are three stages of early development:
  1. The mother-child unity, from the time of birth and during the first year of life;
  2. The separation of the child’s Self from the mother, starting from the end of the first year;
  3. The expression of the Self in the conscious of the child in the second or third year of life.

According to D.Kalff and E.Neuman, one of the main tasks of early development is to form in the child’s psyche a sense of unity with the mother, since the nature of the primary relationship with her determines the quality of all future relationships of the person with other people, things and events, and with themselves.

The concept of “mother-child unity” was introduced by Dora Kalff in her book on sandplay therapy, where she wrote: “When all the requirements of the newborn infant, such as appeasement of hunger, shelter from cold, etc., are met by the bodily mother, the child experiences an unconditional security and a sense of safety through motherly love. We call this first phase the mother-child unity, during which the child experiences unconditional safety and security in maternal love. ” (Kalff, D. M. 1980/2003).

Later, starting to work with adults, Kalff remarked that if their early relationships were difficult, then what helps them heal is returning to the developmental challenges that were not adequately addressed in childhood. And the deep work that is being done in this case lies in the matriarchal field of the unconscious.

Dora Kalff taught that all transformations take place on the mental level of the mother-child unity. “To recover, the psyche needs to return to this early stage of development,” she wrote (Kalf, DM, 1980/2003), believing that in the process of creative work with sand and water, it is possible to involve a person in the transformational process at the cellular level, and the desired state can be achieved.

When hands interact with sand, the forces acting in the unconscious depths of the soul become visible and recognizable. Hands “bring together” the inner and outer worlds, the spirit and matter. Understanding this phenomenon underlies the therapeutic method of sandplay therapy.

Speaking in her research about the “mother-child unity” stage, Dora Kalff pointed out the importance of noticing its symbolic manifestations in sand paintings. The appearance of the image, which could be identified as a reflection of this stage, signaled to her about the beginning of the deep process.

Dora Kalff wrote that the level of the mother-child unity can be observed in many images. Often, its indicators are figures from a culture alien to the client, an image of mythological characters or animal figures. Sometimes it opens with the appearance of a female animal and a cub, figures of gods and goddesses, for example, the Virgin and Child. When continuing to work, the client uses images of their own culture that are closer to their real experience, i.e., to consciousness. Dora Kalff did not emphasize the great importance of sand, but this aspect is evident from the descriptions of her cases.

Sand is important when we talk about mother. It symbolizes the earth, the flesh and, in particular, the maternal body. Prima materia, the primary material, is felt by our hands when we touch the sand, and these sensations return us to the Foremother. The English word “matter” comes from the Latin “mater”, which means mother.

Mother Earth is the basis of the existence of all life and one of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. It is believed that archetypes are capable of producing images independently of conscious experiences. Sandplay therapy provides a unique opportunity to set in motion the energy of the archetype and see the images through which it is expressed in consciousness.

Kay Bradway (Bradway, K., 2005) wrote: “The mother in the sandbox appears in various ways. We often see roundness of the chest or belly in the sand. This is the body. The caves in the sand, the rooms that can shelter something and contain – all these are powerful symbols of the mother. And after you have seen hundreds and hundreds of sand paintings, you understand more and more clearly that something in the sandbox refers to the mother, and you appreciate it. Sometimes the mother enters through the hands of the client. You can notice their softness and tenderness, and it brings calmness. You see how tenderness spreads between the figures, the tenderness of the hands. This is the soul of the mother, I think.”

It happens that a client enters the office and simply touches the sand or with pleasure sinks his or her hands into it. Others avoid contact with sand, although many sand pictures have already been built. The former usually happens to those who boldly face the experience of the mother-child unity that is brought by this touch. Everything is different if the person tries to avoid contact. From this it can be concluded that at this stage of his or her development he or she is afraid of this experience. However, says Kay Bradway, if you – as long as it takes – give the person the experience of a good mother whom he or she did not have or which he or she has forgotten, you help him or her to find the courage to touch the sand. The client can go for it when he or she feels confident enough with you.

And this is the uniqueness of sandplay therapy – in the interaction with sand the client’s body gets the opportunity to manifest itself. In the long, slow therapeutic process, the client has a chance to regress to any stage of his or her development, including the preverbal, and not just once. When interacting with the sand in the safe therapeutic space, the person can relive the feelings and touches associated in the memories with the very early relationship with the mother. And then in the sand we see symbols and forms that show us that the client “is working” now at this stage.

Experiencing the mother-child unity as an important condition for development

“Motherly” forms in the sand may indicate that vital energy (libido) issues are relevant to the person’s development at the moment. In his book “The Symbols of Transformation” K.G.Jung explained his view of family relationships in connection with the process of individuation. In the process of development, the libido must be transferred from the narrow family circle (where the child is only part of the system) to a wider circle (where the person becomes the center of the new system) because it is necessary for the mental health of an adult. Usually this step is associated with sexuality, or at least with thoughts about it (Jung, K.G. 1983).

If this does not happen, the energy (libido) will remain fixed in the unconscious, in endogenous relations with parents, the person’s development will slow down, and he or she needs to go through the separation process in adulthood. K.G.Jung wrote that the vital energy – libido – of a person moves in two directions:
  1. Back to the past, into the unconscious unity with the mother / family / social group etc.;
  2. Forward, towards the requirements of life.

The process creates tension due to the conflict of opposing energies. It can be expressed in various ways, for example, in the form of tics or tantrums. Often these symptoms are the cause why a child or an adult comes to the therapy.

JJung (Jung, K.G. 1983) speaks about what happens if a person cannot adapt to life. When someone does not create objective relationships in reality, his or her energy “explodes” in affect. Affects are usually observed where adaptation is not being successfully implemented.

In another case, in the treatment of a person who grew up under conditions of maternal deprivation, “maternal” forms may appear when the regressive libido “flows” into the unconscious, and a positive maternal complex is constellated there. The energy of the person must return there (age does not matter) in order to give them some time to experience a deep relationship with the therapist and soothe the pain. Then the libido can and should start moving outwards, in the direction of performing real life tasks.

Experiencing the mother-child unity as a factor in healing the trauma

Touching the sand and feeling it, the client gets the opportunity to experience the feelings and touches associated with his or her earliest experience of interacting with his or her mother. And this is especially valuable if the early losses have interrupted something significant.

In the personal history of some people, the processes associated with the formation of a sense of security are disturbed quite early. Perhaps it has never been sufficiently achieved. And then we, sandplay therapists, can create or renew this feeling for the client, approving and cherishing everything he or she does. That is what the mother usually does. And it can give the person a feeling of care. It is a movement back, speaking metaphoricallly, into the “maternal womb”, rebirth, renewal or creation of a connection with the Self, giving a feeling of completeness or wholeness. Speaking metaphoricallly, we need to plunge back into the darkness to come out into the light again. If the mother-child unity was incomplete, the client will need a rebirth, as his or her Ego could be hurt.

“Overcoming the truth”

Every person can feel hurt when the mother’s concern for him or her does not match his or her needs. The situation is even more tragic if the child loses the parents. This wound may be relatively small, and then it results in neurosis or maternal complex, but it can be so great that it can destroy the Ego and lead to psychosis.

I met Edward in an orphanage when he was 8 years old. He lived in the youngest group (where children under 7 years of age, preschool children usually live) and was the oldest and most restless child there. He had lived in the orphanage from the age of three. Edward’s younger brother was in the same group. The teachers insisted on the need for therapy, telling me how impulsive and uncontrollable Edward was, though at other times, although much more seldom, he was an affectionate boy. The nurse informed me that Edward was being monitored by a psychiatrist and was taking antipsychotics. Starting from the end of October, we began to meet once a week.

For many children, it is difficult to accept the limits of the therapeutic relationship, but for Edward this was a real torture. If he remembered me, he rushed into the office ten times a day, shouted under the windows, and so on. And I again and again explained to him how long it was necessary to wait for our next meeting. Gradually, he began to get used to the structure of therapy and could restrict himself to showing on fingers from a distance how many days were left until the next session, and he only rushed into the office at very critical moments.

And at sessions he played a lot. I had a large room where we could play both outdoor games and sitting on the floor covered with carpet. Edward ignored sandboxes; he categorically refused to touch the sand for half a year, up to a very important session in May, which I will discuss.

Edward “did not see” the sandboxes, and I, as it turned out, “did not see” his family history. Now, looking back, I understand that everything happened as it should have had. Edward came to the sessions and once in a while he engaged in wars on the office’s carpet, thus experiencing wars that went on in his soul, taking away the energy necessary for adaptation. The teachers complained to me that in his 8 years he confused numbers and could not read at all, while Edward, without looking into my eyes, told me again and again how his mother came at the weekend and how she brought sweets to him and his brother. And I listened with an awkward feeling.

Winter passed, then spring. We met with Edward every week. At the end of May, I had an important conversation with the teacher of Edward’s group. She came to me in a very upset mood and said: “Either you will immediately explain to this child that he has no mother, or I don’t know what I will do to him!” The teacher told me the child’s history, full of tragedy. It turned out that Edward in his three years witnessed a terrible fight between his parents and even tried to protect his mother, for which his father cut his skull with an ax (the scar was hidden by the boy’s thick hair). After the hospital, Edward was brought to live in an orphanage. His father was put in prison for a long time, and his mother hanged herself a few days after the incident. So Edward lost his mother, the father sometimes wrote to him from prison.

The real story of the boy’s life was too hard for him. Therefore, he created another one, in which nothing was said about the father, but the mother was still alive. And he directed all the powers of his soul to convince himself and others of this fiction. However, over time, the saving fantasy became harmful.

I promised the teacher to try to help Edward to “reconnect with reality”, I was preparing for my next meeting with him. It seemed to me that I was going to take away the lifebelt from a drowning child, although common sense insisted on telling the truth.

Edward came and began, as always, to talk happily about something trivial. I said I wanted to talk about his mom. He said that just that weekend his mother had came and all was as usual. I replied that I know the truth, and he knows that I know ... He blushed, he was ready to cry, I, too. It seemed that our brains are going to “explode”. And then, like in a fairy tale, Edward jumped off his chair and ran to the sandbox.

In complete silence, he made a mound like a grave in the middle of the sandbox, a fence around it, and inside he “planted” flowers. Then he asked if I had a cross: “There are always crosses in the cemeteries” ... Recovering from the shock, I replied that there is no cross, but we could just make one from sticks.

Edward performed his task in the sandbox with ceremonial seriousness and seemed to somehow become more mature in front of my eyes. I lost the feeling that I was taking away the lifebelt from a drowning child. Because he no longer needed it. The boy was standing on the ground with both feet, in reality. The reality was hard, but genuine. One in which it is possible to live. And this “work of the mother” was done in the therapeutic process, thanks to which Edward could “find his mother”, and then lose her forever and all his life be sad about it.

Later we were able to talk about his mother. He said that he almost did not remember her, that he did not even know her name. Therefore, we started the second part of the work of the soul: the restoration of Edward’s life story. This more conscious activity is undoubtedly very important, but it could not have taken place without the long preparatory period, during which the boy vigilantly checked whether I could really “endure” it. So that once he could endure it himself.

Raising Edward’s personal file, I found out the names of his parents, even grandparents. We drew them and made up a “chronicle of his life”. Together with the teacher Edward went to the cemetery to his mother’s grave. It seemed that this was not so much a loss as a gain for the boy.

And in everyday life, Edward suddenly had a lot of energy to build relationships and study. He quickly (as if by magic, the teachers said) learned to count, and then to read. After some time, I learned that in the spring the psychiatrist reduced the dose of neuroleptics, and in the summer he canceled them altogether. However, the impaired mental development, despite recent achievements, was still serious, and the medical-pedagogical commission decided that for Edward it would be better in a specialized boarding school in the countryside.

Until the autum when we parted, Edward built 11 sand pictures. In the centre of the sandbox, the boy always put a “house on the hill” (he used the largest of my collection). The whole plot developed around the house. The house as salvation and hope for a homeless soul. The house is material; the house is from inner reality. Usually there lived a family or Christmas was celebrated. There was always food on the tables. Edward was able to use the energy of the maternal archetype, which entered the process of therapy thanks to the sand and our long relationship with him, and “feed” his soul with something he needed. And this, according to Kay Bradway, is the “work of the mother”.

In conclusion

According to D.Kalff and E.Neumann, one of the main tasks of early development is the formation of the mother-child unity in the human psyche. Dora Kalff believed that all transformations occur on the mental level of the mother-child unity. “To be healed, the psyche needs to return to this early level of development,” she wrote. (Kalf, D. 2003).

The experience of the therapeutic relationship, the free and protected space created by the therapist can be internalized by the client, and it becomes his or her inner space — the personal emotional resource to which a person refers, especially in difficult times. The process, which is supposed to occur naturally due to an early relationship with the mother, but for some reason has failed or has been disturbed later in life, is restored in therapy.

  1. Bradway, K., Chambers, L., Chiaia, M. Sandplay in Three Voices. Routlege, 2005
  2. Kalff, D.M. Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche., Temenos press, California, 2003.
  3. Jung, C.G Symbols of Transformation, Vol 5, Collected Works. New York: Pantheon Books, Inc., 1967.
  4. Neumann, E. The Child. London/New York, Karnac Books, 1988.