Contemporary Archetypal Play Therapy: Keeping Up with the Superheroes.

August 12th, 2016 by ian

Legotherapy: The Importance of Using Contemporary Archetypes in Play Therapy

Ian Bailey, M.A. MFT, LGPC

Fantasies of mythical beings have been part of all human cultures throughout the ages. Carl Jung explains the psychology of these mythos in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1981) and Man and His Symbols (1964). His basic premise is that objects that are external to the human mind reflect inner human emotion and motivations for human behavior. Contemporary play therapy has mobilized Jung’s psychological insights to identify meaning and facilitate healing among therapy clients, especially with children (Henderson & Thompson, 2011). Though various religious and historical archetypes are still prevalent in all societies, the mythos of comic book and Image result for batmanscience-fiction characters are perhaps the most prevalent archetypes that psychotherapists experience in our practices.

Superheroes, characters with advanced or superhuman abilities, have always been popular among children and many adults. In the Twentieth Century, Superman, Batman and Spider-Man were the most recognizable superhero figures in popular culture. More recently,  the breakthrough success of the movies X-Men (2000) and Iron Man (2008), began an elaborate and financially successful series of intertwined movies in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”; superhero fanship is now at an all-time high. More cartoons and TV or web series feature this genre than ever before. Most children know the names of dozens of superheroes and villains.

As therapists, the need to incorporate these characters in our work is extremely important. These mythical beings are not solely enjoyed by readers and viewers due to the fact that they engage in fun-filled battles or posses titillating magical abilities. We enjoy them because they represent human desires and abilities that we already admire or enjoy. Superman may represent strength and hope, while Batman can represent self-discipline, humility, or never giving up on sick individuals (i.e., his trying to reform and not killing his psychotic enemies, e.g., The Joker). By utilizing figurines or images of these fictional beings, we can join with our clients in a better fashion, facilitate them feeling more comfortable, and help them more accurately select symbols in play therapy engagement. In addition, they can be used as a tool to engage families in therapy.

Joining. An important aspect of therapy is making the client feel connected to the therapist and finding common ground for the patient-therapist encounter. Therapists spend many hours working hard to push children to act and think differently or play neutral games. Play with superheroes can be a quick way to employ a client’s currency – to delve into a realm in which the client already spends a lot of his or her mental time. Introducing this type of content

allows clients to open up and feel understood more readily.

Feeling Comfortable. Clients very often do not like to speak about trauma or the unhealthy dynamics of their families. By loosening up the client with comfortable and familiar content, one can begin to broach more difficult topics, even if one eventually needs to tell the client to put down the toy in order to concentrate on a more serious version of the discussion. Too much individual therapy with children is about passing time or playing the “good cop” to teachers’ and parents’ “bad cop” in order to make children behave. By utilizing this relevant symbols approach, the therapist develops trust with the client and elicits key content for trauma work or subsequent family sessions.

Using characters as specific archetypes to elicit crucial information. A hallmark of play therapy is using sand trays and/or basic figurine selection to make a meaningful set of symbolic figures (Lowenfield, M., 1939; Crenshaw, D., Stewart, A., 2016). Instead of using the classic hodge-podge of item such as knights, dolls, animals, and basic humanoids, superheroes and villains can readily elicit meaningful content from clients. I will give a case example, but first I want to mention two caveats.

First of all, for this type of work I prefer to use Lego® brand minifigures and backdrops. I do this because I feel that (a) this brand of toys is very popular and clients usually already have some of them, regardless of SES level; (b) I often have clients build the Lego sets, which provides  an insight into their patience threshold and cognitive abilities;

Image result for spider-man lego(c) building Legos from scratch can be used to elicit creativity and more projective content; (d) they are cute toys, which open up clients and are small and portable. Some colleagues and I jokingly call the use of these toys “Legotherapy”, echoing but not relating to Frankl’s Logotherapy.

Second, is understandable the namebrand toys can be very expensive. The main point here is to to keep in mind importance of using recognizable archetypes.

A case of useful archetypes. Billy* is a 5th grader who lives with his mother and visits his father bi-weekly, following a messy break-up and intense custody battle between the two. I laid out many minifigures from DC Comics in a session with Billy, and added in some popular Avengers figures as well. The client chose “Black Widow”, a superhero spy, as his mother; a supervillain named Deathstroke as well as Superman for his father; and the supervillains Two-Face and Poison Ivy for a grandfather and grandmother. Therapist initially saw these characters as spot-on matches of the people they represent personality-wise, but asked client to elaborate in his own words. Client relayed that he sees his mother as strong, smart, and as “able to fight.” This is in line with her matching character, as the woman is an excellent fighter and highly intelligent. Therapist also felt that the two matched as they can both be intense and evasive.

Client struggled to explain why he chose the two characters for his father, and therapist engaged in a dialogue that included some Socratic questioning and mild prompting. The conclusion was that picking a supervillain along with a superhero represented the ambivalence that client feels towards his father. He looks up to him as strong and as a desired hero in his life (Superman), but he knows that his father has broken the law and hurt many people with his anger (Deathstroke). The duplicity of Two-Face and conniving “hurtfulness” of Poison Ivy matched client’s perception of his dealings with his grandparents. He dreaded being in their care,  as after an initial period of friendliness they ultimately mistreated him.

Though it took several weeks of building trust and bonding initially, these figures helped client to flesh out his feelings towards his family and provided quality content for discussion in individual and family sessions. They also helped therapist understand his perception of his situation. Client kept repeating that each of his family members “knows how to fight”, and it soon became clear that he was not solely referencing their superhero counterparts. Therapist steered the discussion to in-family fighting and domestic violence, with him seeing his mother as a victim who fights back (Black Widow knowing how to fight).

Often clients rebuff our questioning about family by curtly relaying that all is “fine”, but here the client divulged multiple incidences of intense family conflict. He also divulged that that he had seen his father strike his mother and

Image result for star-lord legopull her hair, and that he had witnessed some similar behaviors towards subsequent girlfriends. This became key content for family sessions and trauma-based pictorial art therapy was initiated to help client work through these traumas.

Family Therapy. Engaging, contemporary symbolism can help therapists in family work, as well. Key objects can be used to engage families in a non-threatening way, but in a way that can directly lead to discussions of family dynamics and topics that family members have been avoiding. This is done through having the client manipulate the figures to reflect actual life or instructing the client to select figures that match the people that she or he normally interact with.   

As competent and effective therapists, it is crucial that we keep our play items and archetypes contemporary. Contemporary archetypes can be utilized in therapeutic work with people of all ages. The therapist simply needs to engage a client through the mythos that are important to her or him. Along these lines, bibliotherapy with engaging characters is an effective medium to work with adults. One client found much meaning in discussing Star Trek: The Next Generation characters and the dialogue within certain episodes, while another found watching The Sopranos to be therapeutic. In the latter case, seeing a strong commanding figure struggle with mental health symptoms gave inspiration to the client. This young man wished to be a strong, high-earning real estate agent, but suffered from anxiety and had ADHD.

In our work with clients, play therapy and other forms of contemporary archetypes are powerful tools, but they need to be kept fresh and rooted in relevant mythos.

Ian Bailey holds a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Touro University Worldwide. He currently works as an Off-Site Therapist (LGPC) for Advanced Behavioral Health, Inc. in Baltimore, MD. His fields of interest

Image result for wolverine lego include structural family therapy, personality typing, play therapy, and career counseling.

*Names, symbols, and identifying information have been changed to protect client’s privacy.


Crenshaw, D., Stewart, A. (2016). Play Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice (Creative Arts and Play Therapy) Reprint Edition. New York: Guilford.

Jung, C. G. (1981). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1, Princeton: Bollingen.

Jung, C. G., & Franz, M.-L. v. (1964). Man and His Symbols. Garden City: Doubleday.


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