(Courtesy of Project SARAH) It is widely known that the impact of trauma is extremely far reaching and may begin during adverse events from early childhood. Project SARAH, the statewide resource for those impacted by domestic and sexual abuse, offers a space for children to begin healing from traumatic events. Clinical art therapy is one of the many therapeutic frameworks used and can be especially beneficial for children.
At Project SARAH, children begin their therapeutic experience in a safe and confidential milieu and are able to reflect and process their world through art when words may not be available or sufficient to express their feelings.
For many children, everyday images or innocent sensory occurrences may trigger a feeling of danger, flashbacks, nightmares, and re-experiencing the trauma. Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D., noted psychiatrist, says that some of these children may be labeled with classifications such as conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder or attention deficit/hyperactive disorder—all of which may obscure their underlying trauma. Those who have suppressed their feelings may turn to dangerous behaviors, cutting and more, to feel anything other than what their body sensations hold. As such, it is important to help them get in touch with their emotions.
Art therapy enables the child to safely communicate their feelings as they are validated and supported by the clinician. Decisions made by the client, such as media, method, placement, color, pressure and size, are the beginnings of self-esteem development and offer a sense of self-control within their environment. Much is revealed through their metaphors, showing how a child has internalized their experience(s), while providing insight into assessments and goals.
Many tools are available when using art therapy. Among those commonly known are:
Cognitive Behavioral Art Therapy approaches enable clients to visualize what is going on in their mind and learn new ways to change their thinking patterns. This evidence-based method is highly effective for treating anxiety, depression and PTSD by increasing coping skills and by learning how to adapt to the environment.
Dialectical Behavior Art Therapy includes attention to mindfulness (fully aware, focused and in the present instead of worrying about the past or future); distress tolerance (understanding and managing emotions in stressful situations without using harmful behaviors); interpersonal effectiveness (learning how to ask for wants and needs; setting boundaries; respecting self and others); emotional regulation (awareness and control over emotions).
Trauma-Informed Art Therapy where “the goal is not to impose a pre-existing set of interventions to direct [children] toward specific outcomes,” according to Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D. “Rather, the goal is to understand the world in which individuals live and the intersectional challenges they face and then to co-create meaningful experiences that respond to that reality.”
Somatic Experiencing Art Therapy is based on the belief that trauma is a natural occurrence of life, and we can recover from it. The focus is on empowerment and self-direction (Elbrecht, C), and the art therapy involves neurobiologically informed trauma interventions, such as bilateral drawing, to liberate expression and help organize specific sensations in the process of reparation from trauma. This can be accomplished through guided drawing that allows for clients to move between tension and release/pain and soothing, at their own pace.
At Project SARAH, there are many supports for working through traumas, from domestic violence to sexual abuse, to acrimonious divorce. Art therapy is one of those supports that promotes well-being, enhances emotional regulation, promotes self-awareness, provides an opportunity to explore feelings in a symbolic way, raises hope, builds inner strength and confidence, helps develop coping skills, helps to envision new outcomes and beliefs, and promotes acceptance in self and others. Additionally, clinical tests have shown a physical reduction of stress, as well as a decrease in cortisol levels after using art. A sub-benefit of art therapy is the surprise of having created unique and amazingly aesthetic treasures that hold one’s healing.
To advance the critical work of this program, you are invited to come join Project SARAH’s evening of inspiration and song, which will assist victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Your support will be used to enable awareness and education at schools, camps and the community.
This exceptional event includes a lavish dessert buffet, and will be held October 30, at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. Join the fun, featuring guests of honor Rabbi Andrew and Dr. Sara Markowitz; “Rav Gav” (Rabbi Gavriel Friedman), master of the mic; and musical sensation Eli Schwebel (“Stand for You” hit single). For more information visit www.TimeToTakeAStand.org.
Donna J. Frederickson, MA, LPAT, ATR-BC is a clinical art therapist who works extensively with those affected by domestic violence and other forms of trauma.
*For further reading:
“Healing Trauma with Guided Drawing (A Sensorimotor Art Therapy Approach to Bilateral Body Mapping),” Cornelia Elbrecht (North Atlantic Books, 2018)
“The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Bessel Van der Kolk (Viking, 2014)
“Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy (Brain, Body, & Imagination in the Healing Process),” Cathy A. Malchiodi (The Guilford Press, 2020)