Origin and method
The underlying methodology is based on the ideas of Jacob Levy Moreno, the father of psychodrama, on the "social atom", which he defined as "the smallest nucleus of all individuals with whom a person is related in a most significant manner constituting negative and positive emotional bonds" (Moreno, 1934). For diagnostic purposes, this social network can be defined through tests, but this sociometric network can also be put into action to achieve therapeutic effects, notably via the "action sociogram". Verhofstadt-Denève (2004) designed a semi-directive protocol for the psychodramatical application of the social atom or action sociogram among adolescents and young adults through the spatial representation of others symbolised by group members or objects (chairs, cushions, etc.).
This protocol also appeared to be highly workable for children from ages 10-11, but it was shown to be less suitable for application among pre-schoolers. A concrete adaptation for young children became therefore imperative. The original protocol was transformed into a version for children in which the child can give concrete shape to itself and significant others and identify them by freely choosing the clothes, colour of hair, mouth, posture and interpersonal distance between the puppets (Verhofstadt-Denève, Dillen, Helskens & Siongers, 2004).
The therapist presents himself via his puppet as well. All the dialogues with the child and the significant others are conducted via the puppets and not directly with the therapist. This creates a more playful and less confrontational atmosphere. It appears that children, even from the early age of 3, are perfectly capable of taking on the role of the significant other when for instance the therapist addresses this significant other. Indeed, the child appears to respond spontaneously from its new role position, which implies the capacity to empathise with the other. This method thus makes it possible to apply the principal psychodrama techniques such as role-taking, doubling, mirroring… even with very young children. This makes this protocol a fully-fledged psychodrama application for very young children.
Like for the adult protocol, the theoretical background is based mainly on the phenomenological-dialectical personal model by Verhofstadt-Denève (2001). This method also makes it possible - beyond the application of the action sociogram to a specific relational problem - to put brief psychodramatical emotionally-laden conflict episodes and concrete real-life situations into action and to objectify them. The playful and safe therapeutic climate that is created helps children to discover new action strategies and alternative interpretations of self and the environment, and this can raise their assertiveness vis-à-vis themselves and their environment.
Moreno, J.L. (1934). Who shall survive? A new approach to the problem of human interrelations. Washington DC: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing.
Verhofstadt-Denève, L. (2000). Theory and Practice of Action and Drama Techniques. Developmental Psychotherapy from an Existential-Dialectical Viewpoint. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 352 pp.
Verhofstadt-Denève, L. (2003). The psychodramatical "social atom method": Dialogical self in dialectical action. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 16, pp. 183-212.
Verhofstadt-Denève, L.; Dillen, L.; Helskens, D.; Siongers, M. (2004). The psychodramatical "social atom method" with children: A developing dialogical self in dialectic action (pp. 152-170). In: Hermans, H. & Dimaggio, G.: The Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy. Hove East Sussex/New York: Brunner - Routledge.