Childhood trauma – April 12 2019

Trauma therapy: Using art to help your child heal

Is your child in the midst of processing an overwhelming experience or trauma, and you want to encourage them to move forward in a healthy way? Help them express themselves creatively!

Children struggle to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives after a traumatic event. A trauma occurs when a child feels intensely threatened, scared or shaken up by an experience that happens to the child or to a loved one, while experiencing feelings of helplessness and loss of control. Whether it’s an emotional trauma or psychological trauma (ex: losing a loved one) or a physical trauma (ex: physical abuse), the event creates stress and erodes the child’s sense of stability. Reactions to trauma interfere with daily life, impact the ability to function and affect interactions with others. These traumatic experiences can produce physical, psychological and emotional reactions that last into adulthood.

Learn more about how you can help your own children process their stress, trauma and loss.

You may not be able to erase your child’s pain completely, but you can guide them to cope in ways that are positive and cathartic.

A beneficial way for your child to express their feelings is to draw, paint, sculpt with clay or write: creative and artistic activities, as appropriate for the child’s age and level of development.

For younger kids, read more about Play therapy: Helping babies, toddlers and young children heal from trauma.

The way children process trauma is often extremely fragmented; they can’t make sense of everything that happened. The purpose of creating art or writing is for your child to express how they’re feeling in that moment—and for you to have a conversation with them about it. It’s a form of therapy that helps them reduce their stress.

You can start by asking your child to draw or write what they’re feeling today; something they dream of; what they want to be when they grow up; a fantasy like their best garden or the perfect vacation; or a person who is there for them and makes them feel comfortable. This helps your child express their emotions, illustrate their desires, connect the different pieces of the traumatic experience and better understand their own reactions. Then, ask them to explain it to you: what they created and why. (Concentrate more on the meaning of your child’s work than the specific artistic skills.) Ask your child how they’re feeling. Try to empathize with their perspective and gain insight about their emotional journey.

You’ll likely be able to sense if your child’s art is about their traumatic event. However, the point isn’t to specifically ask your child to draw or write about their feelings surrounding the trauma, or to dig for answers about it in your conversation with them; that could expose their wounds and lead them to dwell on the pain of the past. If you think your child needs to talk about the traumatic experience or revisit a difficult memory, certainly discuss it with them and validate their feelings. But try to leave the conversation on an optimistic note to soothe their wounds.

If you think this artistic technique is helping your child to work through a traumatic past, keep doing it! They can continue drawing, writing and creating every day, for as long as it’s useful. Your child may not only overcome their trauma, but they may even develop a great love for creative expression that lasts a lifetime.

For more advice about how to spot signs of childhood trauma, read Childhood trauma: 30+ signs your child is trying to cope.
To help your child cope with the death of a loved one, read Losing a loved one: How to help your child heal.

Trauma therapy experts

Every day, SOS Children’s Villages helps children overcome the trauma they’ve experienced prior to being in our care, including the loss of their parents and families. We offer mental health programs and services to children, families and communities, and we train SOS mothers and caregivers to provide critical help to children who may have been exposed to traumatic experiences. We also empower children to cope with their anguish through specialized trauma recovery techniques and psychological support from SOS experts in child care and mental health. For instance, we run five child care centers in Bangladesh for Rohingya children who fled from Myanmar, where we help them heal and stay healthy through trauma counseling, medical attention and referral services for specialized care. With seven decades of experience, SOS Children’s Villages works in 135 countries to ensure that all children in our programs receive appropriate care, stimulation and support to overcome traumas from their past—and build resilience and post-traumatic growth.

To read more about childhood trauma and how SOS helps children recover, click here.