An Example of Art Therapy with a Child

Tara runs into my office. She is four and she is excited. She looks around as if she knows there is a purpose to being here. She sees the markers and immediately settles at the little table. At first she seems excited at seeing all the colours, but now she picks up only a pencil. It appears as if the blank piece of paper is a doorway to a strange world where things have a different shape and quality. She speaks in a low voice as she draws awkward figures, one after another. They would have been somewhat typical drawings of an average four-year old had they not all had heavy dark zigzag scratches in the middle area of their body. A monster had hurt them, she says.

When a child suffers trauma -be it physical, emotional, sexual or otherwise- her whole existence, her Self, is threatened. The impact of trauma is such that the mind becomes unable to keep the natural impulses under control. The fear of loss of Self as a result of trauma may be so great that the body reacts in the only way it knows how; it has to either fight or flee to survive the attack. In doing either the running or the fighting- the child’s suffering is greater if the child feels alone.

To undo the effect of the traumatic event the child, or anyone of any age for that matter, needs to recount what happened. The telling of the story does not have to be literal and in actual details. Especially in the case of children, this takes on a symbolic expression. In telling of the story, the child relates to others (parents or parental figures) and finds herself not alone, connected and accepted. In other words, loved. If the caring adults fail to provide the traumatised child with an opportunity to do so, she may continue with her internal cycle of frightful running and hiding, feeling helpless to fight back, feeling guilty for having survived, feeling ashamed and dirty for having to suffer the experience, feeling hopeless of getting better and feeling angry for being this way.

To tell the story the child needs a language. Trauma takes the words away. When a child is in severe pain we expect to see tears and to hear screams. How can we expect clear descriptions and reasonable explanations when the child is in severe psychological pain?

Art therapy provides the child with a language that the child understands and is able to use. Colours, shapes, and textures can speak volumes when the child is unable to utter a single word. Using the art materials the child can free up her pain and share it with a caring adult, namely the art therapist, and transform her experience. By describing the trauma in a language that the therapist understands, respects, and supports, the child leaves that lonely place of suffering. In receiving the gift of colours and textures, the child feels the permission to allow her body – her hands – to speak of what happened. And finally it is through the mediation of the image that the child’s unconscious can communicate with the child’s conscious mind of here and now.

In order for the trauma to lose its grip over the child’s life it does not have to necessarily be dissected in every detail. It does not have to be told in words either. Metaphors and symbolic images offer the child a vast reservoir of meaning that no word can. It is similar to good poetry that, through fresh combinations of words, evokes powerful mental imagery. Images, just like poetry, speak from, and to, that part of the brain that is the domain of physical sensations, emotions, intuition, and creativity. Like a ship caught in a stormy sea that is now firmly anchored at the port, the child’s emotions are now connected with her experience. Through the supportive relationship of an art therapist the child is able to master her painful experiences and feel powerful in the face of her internal monsters.

I ask Tara about her monster, how bad it was and how it felt for the creatures to be hurt like that. We talk about what they need to get better. With her invented alphabet she writes long letters from her mother to herself; long letters that say only one thing: ?I love you?. She reads the letters in sad, sad tones. She longs to be loved. She wishes for a parent that would love her in no uncertain terms.

How long does it take?

Length of therapy depends on the current presenting problem and the main issue. Art therapy can be used, in short-term, to find solutions to immediate problems that the client faces at the present. It can also be used, over longer term, to change the pattern of actions and reactions
that bring the client time and again to the same negative situation.

Artistic talent?

The client did not have any art experience. In her art she drew people as stick figures and used straightforward symbols. At the beginning she was not sure of herself, but this slowly changed.