In honor of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day on May 10, 2018, we are sharing some stories written by art therapists who work with children and adolescents. The art making process allows for expression without words, helps establish safety, creates opportunities for coping, and offers a way to manage feelings, thoughts, and experiences for future exploration and insight. In the following stories from Voices of Art Therapy, art therapists share moments when they helped children find a voice to express themselves, cope with extraneous circumstances, and begin to move past their traumatic or otherwise challenging experiences.
“Que Te Vaya Bien Mi Nieto” by Melissa Clarke, ATR, LMHC
A few years ago, in 2014, the small, sanctuary city of Chelsea, MA welcomed the wave of unaccompanied minors arriving at our nation’s border. This warm embrace was very much needed, as the children who arrived in Massachusetts were in search of reunifying with their families as well as a life in which they could seek safety away from the persecutory, gang violence that has taken over their communities.
Not only are these children and families born into a life woven with layers of generational trauma, but they are fleeing their beloved country and culture to make the treacherous journey from either Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador with the dream of reaching the U.S Border. This journey is embedded with atrocity and horrific trauma, and seems to persist when these children reach the large, over-crowded, freezing detention centers, otherwise known as ” un carcel”- a jail or “la hieleras”- the icebox.
In order to tell this story and begin to heal from this trauma, a young boy who was 11 at the time of crossing the border, and who is now 14 years old shared with me, his art therapist through this collaborative art making piece. Together, the two us crocheted and sewed small granny squares from tethers of fabric ripped and tied together from an old purse taken on many journeys this art therapist took, and used the bag until it couldn’t hold anymore.
During the art making process, this boy began to tell this therapist about how cold the detention center was and how saw a small boy who was scared and trembling. The boy described, that in this moment, he felt that while his situation was frightening, this other boy needed to be sheltered. This client shared how he gave the boy his sweater, but in the moment wish he could cover him in a blanket. As this client spoke, he reminded this therapist about the lack of human dignity in the detention center and being stripped of all of what little things he had left, such as documents, photos, and phone numbers. As a response he created the center of the blanket with a secret zipper pouch to hold his belongings. This final piece shares his story of being sent off to the U.S by his Abuela whom he left behind, yet is covered memories of the bright fabrics to keep him safe and warm.
“Art as Another Language” by Anne M. Warren, DAT, ATR-BC, ATRL, LPC
The other day I saw this photo of a summary of how the presentation of a play full of dragons and magical scenes went on a day when there were classrooms full of students in the audience.
This made me think about a little boy an art therapist saw a while back, who refused to speak in public. He was about 5 years old, and in kindergarten at the local public elementary school. He occasionally whispered to a classmate, but stopped when noticed by his teacher. He never spoke to the teacher, or any other adult while at school. He would talk in a whisper at home, but not often.
His foster mother came in alone and explained that he had experienced trauma in his family of origin, and she had stepped in to care for him, hoping to adopt him. She hoped that art therapy might help, given his love of creating art, and, of course, his refusal to talk. She seemed tense, and talked about how stressful this was in their family. She noted that there seemed to be no laughter at home. She couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed.
The art therapist had not treated selective mutism before, and gave a lot of thought to how he might work through his difficulty communicating. As an art therapist, I know that art is a form of communication, and that it can evoke emotions in people. We all know that from our enjoyment of art, or how art can stir controversy. But how was this art therapist going to use one form of communication to spur another?
The art therapist decided to tell him right away that she knew that he didn’t like talking, so in her office, talking was not required. In fact, he would not talk, but instead draw what he wanted her to know. They began their art-making session with one question: “What would you like to do first”?
I understand that his eyes lit up, and he glanced at the display of acrylic paints on the table behind the art therapist. He drew a picture of a paint bottle using the paper and markers on the table in front of him. Mother watched nervously as the art therapist talked and he drew through the first ten minutes of the session. He made scribbles in the color of paint he wanted and watched as it was poured out onto the pallet. The art therapist chose some brushes for him, and put out water and towels, chatting all the while.
He sat on Mother’s lap and readied himself to paint. As soon as the paint touched the paper, he began to talk. He told the therapist all about his morning in kindergarten, his dog at home, how much he likes swimming in the summer, and how he loves his dog. A 30 minute session drew out to 55 minutes while he painted and talked, and the therapist listened and renewed paper, paint, and water. At the therapist’s urging, he painted things he loved, and things that scared him. He painted his new family, but not his old one. He painted a dark cloud that he said was “bad things” and he painted a rainbow when asked how he felt right then. He was not pushed to remember his trauma, or explore it. After all, it was a first session, and they were just getting to know each other. They completed their session by walking down the hallway towards the reception area chatting all the way, Mother trailing behind. He was given a sketchbook to take with him while Mother made more appointments.
What happened in that art therapy office that day? Was it the permission to not talk that triggered his speech? Or perhaps it was the fun game of drawing his wishes. Was it the painting itself, or his knowing that he was there because he wouldn’t speak and the art therapist was the person who allowed him to talk in images instead? It could have been all of the above, but I think that moving the paint across the paper was important to the release of words for that little boy. He never returned to see the art therapist. Mother called and cancelled all future appointments because he continued to talk-to everyone, everywhere. We never did get the chance to explore his trauma history through art, but perhaps the dark cloud image was enough for now. When Mother called the art therapist to cancel his future appointments, she talked about how things at home had changed. She said that the tension at home seemed lessened and everyone seemed happier. Foster Mother asked if there might be a way to get him to stop talking so much should they get tired of his happy chatter in the future. The art therapist told her that they’d cross that bridge when they came to it, if ever. She laughed.
*name has been changed
“Guns and Roses” by Laura Martin, ATR-BC, LPCC
There are times when art therapy has a clear advantage over traditional talk therapy in moving the client from one emotional space to another. Early in the school year, an eleven-year-old male was brought into my school-based counseling office because he had threatened to shoot a peer. In the process of assessing for a plan and access to a weapon, it became clear Evan* was very angry, but was in no true danger of committing homicide.
I had him draw a picture of his anger, and he drew what you might expect: a stick figure boy pointing a gun at a stick figure girl. As we talked about the consequences of his desired actions, and then brainstormed alternative solutions, Evan calmed down and began to see reason. He turned the paper over and drew a car. Then he asked for another sheet of paper to redraw the car because he wanted to keep the car drawing, but not what was on the other side. I encouraged him to go back to his original drawing and change it to reflect his calmer, more positive state. He drew over some elements, changing the gun to a bouquet of flowers, and spurts of blood to hearts. He looked up and abashedly admitted, “I have anger issues.” In less than an hour, this client had moved from homicidal ideation to literally changing his view of the situation. All through the power of art therapy.
How to Share Your Story
There are many ways to describe art therapy and often a story is a powerful way to share our work. We know these amazing stories because we experience them every day and have the honor of witnessing the impact of art therapy in people’s lives. Now it’s time to share those stories with the world.
Here are some tips for effective storytelling:
- Provide focus: Concentrate on one succinct story to allow readers to connect with the experience.
- Be visual: Compelling images draw readers in. Select artwork that sparks emotion and grabs your attention.
- Use real details: Quotes, sights, sounds, and events help make your story more tangible and relatable.
- Get personal: Focus your attention on the central figure of your story. Tap into human emotion, enabling readers to form a connection with him/her/them.