Art Therapy and Trauma Intervention for Children

Trauma is an overwhelming amount of distress that exceeds a person’s coping capacity. The result? An inability to adequately integrate all the emotions related to the experience. Trauma experienced in childhood is particularly severe.

When trauma memories aren’t consciously integrated, the trauma asserts power over the child by triggering the conditioned arousal or avoidance responses. This might not stop unless it is properly addressed, and it can impede or interfere with the child’s wellbeing for the rest of their lives.

Trauma Focused Art Therapy

A core process in helping a child with integration is intelligent and skilful re-exposure to their experiences. The trauma memories can be modified and transformed into a manageable and meaningful narrative. This new narrative brings the child to an understanding that the conditioned responses are no longer necessary, as the danger no longer exists.

Cognitive therapy can assist in this cognitive and emotional reframing so the child can identify as a survivor able to make positive choices rather than as merely a powerless victim.

Drawings, paintings and sculptures (a sensory-motor activity) enable the child to externalise the symbolic form of the trauma. This gives the child the opportunity to retrieve the intrinsic memory (not available to language), encode it, give it a language (wherein the memory becomes extrinsic) and integrate it into consciousness. The drawing allows them to retell their story visually and verbally. In doing so, they regain power over the triggers and symptoms caused by the trauma and achieve integration, giving them the assurance and confidence to move on with their lives. After achieving integration, many clients feel more empowered, full of compassion towards others who are suffering and that bit wiser.

Trauma Intervention: Trauma Art Therapy with Children

An added advantage of artwork—the externalisation of the trauma versus talking therapy—is that the therapist serves as a witness for the child of their experience of fear, terror, worry, hurt, anger, revenge, accountability and overall victimisation. This strengthens the support process and offers further assurance to the child.

An important issue to consider is protecting the child from loss of control. For example, giving the child control over the process by providing manageable materials such as pencils rather than paint and smaller rather than larger paper will help the child gradually feel more comfortable ‘tackling’ larger and more sensual objects. Similarly, it is important to take small steps in the process to avoid overwhelming the chid.

Re-exposure should be slow and safe. It is vital that the therapist practises patience and develops a good sense of how the client is progressing. Some children need to regress first before they can move forward.

Interventions should focus on one theme at a time. This enables details of the sensory experience of the event to be externalised. This sensory information is critical in helping to re-establish a sense of control. In many ways, trauma is an embodied experience; it is locked up in the body and needs to find release.

The therapist could ask the child to draw their experience with prompts such as, “What happened?” or “What does your hurt look like?”. Following the themes that emerge from the child, only at his or her instigation, yields much progress. It goes without saying that trauma intervention is not a process one can rush or force. Instead, it requires a lot of patience and love.

I encourage you to have a peek at our course overview and check out all we have on offer at the College of Educational and Clinical Art Therapy.

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Robert Gray on Trauma Intervention
Robert Gray
Director and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.

A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has become a much sought-after art therapy lecturer and practising art therapist in Australia. His unique approach spanning psychodynamic, humanistic, spiritual and cognitive behavioural frameworks has distinguished him as a thought leader who is frequently invited to present at conferences in Australia and abroad.

Trained overseas and multilingual, German-born Robert shares the benefits of his international affiliations and access to cutting-edge research published in various languages with his students and readers. Robert is a professional member of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS).