We all have our superheroes especially because superheroes have the ability to inspire, empower, support and occasionally save us. Sometimes, superheroes help us to save ourselves.
I have already penned some articles about the magical technique of Superhero Therapy, and how the concept of superheroes can be used in different psychotherapeutic approaches to support people who are in distress. However, that exploration was mainly about how we might use superheroes with adults in therapy.
What about using superheroes for children?
Many of the points that stand for adults are true for children. Thinking about superheroes – their lives, adventures, challenges, friends, powers and weaknesses – can provide a range of creative ways of working. This might include problem solving, being kinder to oneself, hearing stories of triumph over adversity, working out what one’s own superpowers are, and finding strength.
The narratives that children tell about superheroes might lead us to understand what they are trying to ‘work through’ (e.g. do they focus on battles, sex and sexuality, people being saved, when things go wrong, when the superhero has to lie about their true identity?). We might also wonder who the child identifies with (sidekick, superhero, police chief, villain), and whether the characters of which they speak represent either feelings, themselves, or other people in their lives.
However, one of the main differences between adult and child therapies is the difference in how playing is used as part of therapy. The organisation Play Therapy UK suggests that around 8/10 children with severe problems, such as emotional or behavioural difficulties, will show positive change after play therapeutic interventions.
Engaging in play, fantasy, and the realm of the imaginary can also make it easier to access and talk about difficult topics. In some ways, this may particularly true for younger people who don’t have the words, experience and knowledge to talk about things directly. Although, being an adult and having more experience is no guarantee that it will be easier to talk about things. Roleplays could be used to help children and their families take different perspectives, and understand each other differently.
Psychodynamic play therapy may simply be allowing a child to play with anything from a box of toys. This could (and probably should) include characters such as superheroes. Commenting on how the child chooses to play, without the therapist actively directing their play, can lead to useful insights about a child’s wellbeing due to the themes and ideas that occur during such play.
Children and young people may also use sandplay – arranging toys and items within the confines of a sandbox, to represent their inner states of mind. The work of Dora Kalff is cited in both the American and British-Irish sandplay organisations – her work is based on Jungian principles that the unconscious will guide the play. Of course, this is not restricted to children and young people, but sandplay is certainly a useful way to reach children particularly.
Filial therapy is one branch of play therapy, which focuses on the relationships. Parents (or caregivers) are seen as the main agents of change, and the sessions are often led by them. The therapist supports the parent in using skills that are similar to nondirective play therapy. The scope for using superheroes here is huge. Superhero narratives can support parents to understand and frame their children’s feelings, or it may be a way for parents and children to find something that they have in common. Using superhero-based toys may also open up a range of potential narratives to parent and child, as described above.
Theraplay®, another type of play work with children, “is a child and family therapy for building and enhancing attachment, self-esteem, trust in others, and joyful engagement”. Play tasks have particular aims, and they are designed to develop particular skillsets whilst being fun for all. Theraplay® involves children playing games – with their families – which tap into challenge, structure, shared engagement and nurturing. Children’s favourite superheroes could be incorporated into how the tasks are explained to the child, or superhero-themed items such as soft toys, bubbles etc. could be used as part of the play.
Attachment-Based Play Therapy (ABPT) is a different (less researched) approach, which focuses on teaching children how to feel and experience emotion. It suggests that children should learn how to be accepting of feelings, become able to ‘attach’ to themselves, and take care of themselves from a position of compassion and kindness. In this way, superheroes could be used during play to teach a child how to express and accept their feelings. Examples could be drawn from how superheroes look after themselves, or what the person would say to their favourite hero if that person was sad or distressed.
In conclusion, superheroes have an important place in work with children and young people. Superheroes can fit pretty much anywhere depending on the person and the therapist. For younger people, superheroes can particularly serve to be role models, relatable characters, characters through which a young person can parallel their own experiences, and of course a way to build a rapport with their therapist. With these insights, perhaps more of us can go forth and prosper with the youngsters with whom we work.