Using Art with Trauma

When children reflect and respond to the images, symbols, and metaphors they create, their first glimpse of positive change may become available – imagining change is the first step to creating positive change.

– Cathy Malchiodi

With all of the populations that art therapy can assist, victims of trauma seem to extremely benefit from the art directives. No matter the abusive experience the victim has lived through, there is always a directive that can be there to give them a voice for their pain. Unfortunately, sexually abused children are a major population worked with in the field.

These children can act out different behaviors or experience altering moods after their experiences. Posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, fear, aggression, depression, and even sexually aggressive behaviors can be evident within these abused young children. With directives chosen by the art therapist, art can address the deep variety of memories, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings the child may be feeling after their experience. It is seen that children subconsciously use symbols and metaphors to hint at their traumatic experience. There are definitely many things that could fit under the category of symbols and metaphors, but here is a list of something that have been consistently found in sexually abused children’s work!

  • head only in their drawings of people
  • heavy line pressure when drawing
  • smoke coming from a chimney
  • absence of hands, fingers, or feet
  • absence of clothing on their people
  • box-like figures
  • large noses, long hair, open mouths, teeth
  • presence of genitalia or absence of genitalia
  • emphasis on pelvic areas or upper portion of body

If these are shown in a client’s piece, it does not directly mean they have been abused, but definitely deserve a further look and caution in further directive pieces! There is a find line between a children’s exploration as they grow older and the possibility of sexual abuse. With all the pain, betrayal, and suffering a person can go through from abuse, I am happy art can be there to be their shoulder to lean on.

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