Expressive Art Therapy for the Traumatized Child

Providing treatment for a child who has experienced trauma means treating both the child and her family. After a traumatic experience, families have different ways of coping; Often there is chaos. Chaos in the environment makes it very difficult for a young child to feel safe to be a child. Trauma also can make it difficult for family members to emotionally connect with each other.

What happens to the child?
In my occupational therapy practice, I regularly provide therapy services to the adult victims of car accidents. Recently, I have provided expressive art therapy for a ten-year-old child who was with her mother when she was involved in a motor vehicle collision. From age 3, my client grew up in a family that is broken by trauma.

This client is not the direct victim of the car accident; nonetheless, the effects of the accident left a large impression on her childhood and continues to do so today. As service providers, we must not forget that trauma affects the victim’s spouse, child, and family members.

The child
When I first met my client, she was very sad. She was unexpressive and emotionally withdrawn. During our first meeting, she looked down, sat still and didn’t make eye contact. She couldn’t speak about her feelings and was only able to express that nothing seemed important to her. She did not volunteer a lot of information, making it difficult to assess in therapy sessions how she was doing physically and emotionally. She had no voice. After a lot of questions from me and with long pauses of silence on her part, she would occasionally talk about nightmares. She did not, however, want to elaborate – she was shut down.

So how does a therapist approach this situation?
Judith Herman has explained in her book Trauma and Recovery, that in trauma-informed art therapy we must establish safety first. Initial sessions must emphasize the development of trust and safety and focus on teaching self-regulation skills.

What are self-regulation skills?
Self-regulation is the ability to calm oneself down when upset and cheer oneself up when feeling down. In this case, my client had very few self-regulation skills. She was always very sad but not able to express her feelings. Or she would be frustrated and angry and physically lash out at her siblings instead of telling them to stop or asking her parents for help. For a child to be able to recover from trauma, she must be comfortable with self-disclosure. She must feel emotionally secure in order to be able to learn new skills.

Our rehabilitation team worked on supporting her abilities to learn self-care and self-regulation through identifying situations that create worry or anxiety (marks at school, not being prepared, nightmares), how her body reacts to stress (cold feet, upset tummy) and strategies for reducing stress when uncomfortable feelings arise (breathing, talking to an adult).

Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, in their book Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, say: “A child must experience the following in order to feel safe and to be able to self-regulate:

  1. My body is safe
  2. My feelings are safe
  3. My thoughts, words, and ideas are safe
  4. Things I make are safe.

During Art therapy sessions, we worked on safety and self-regulation through art. I asked my client about how she felt when we first met and started therapy, and what skills have changed. I asked her about how she felt at the start of therapy and how she feels now. The purpose of reflecting on past difficult times or feeling is to help the client recognize how much she has grown and the new skills she possesses. Recognizing copying skills and personal growth helps build confidence. I asked my client to write down these reflections in her journal. Then she can read them out loud to her parents to help the family form new emotional bonds.

Expressive Art Therapy
We also began to make a “Happy Mosaic Board” to create symbols of what makes her happy. She said that dancing, music, colours, sparkly things and friends made her happy. She included the symbol of a music note at the centre of her board, surrounding it with sparkly things and colours! She started her board by laying down the foundational tiles.

In Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children, Cathy Malchiodi explains that step two of trauma-informed art therapy (after establishing safety and trust) involves telling the trauma story. Children are encouraged to talk about how the trauma affected them. The overall goal is to help children heal the trauma of violent events and to begin to regain their abilities to experience and enjoy life even though bad things have happened.

When we were completing the mosaic board, I asked the client again about the changes she has been able to make in her life since I’ve met her. She has learned skills from her social work counseling sessions, like patience– learning how to wait. She has also learned to control her anger through breathing exercises and to moderate sadness by first crying and then doing something that makes her happy.

She also learned, with occupational therapy, daily living skill such as :

  • budgeting to make sure she has enough money to purchase small items from the dollar store;
  • scheduling her appointments by writing it down on her calendar;
  • researching topics and finding books at the library; and
  • using a computer and iPad.

She also experienced interactions with adults role model who listens and respects her wishes. The reflection exercise helped her to feel good about herself and to recognize her abilities. I then asked her about the nightmares again. At this point, she was ready to open up. She said that had nightmares almost 4-5 times a week before therapy, but now it is significantly less at about once a week. Without Trauma-informed Expressive Art Therapy, it would be very difficult for her to share this trauma.

Telling the trauma story doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but the child needs to feel safe enough to tell it. She feels safe about who she is and that:

  1. Her body is safe
  2. Her feelings are safe
  3. Her thoughts, words, and ideas are safe
  4. The things that she makes are safe

Right now, my client is happier.  She is in an environment that is more safe and loving. She felt like she has the freedom to be who she is. Here is her finished “Happy Board.” It is colourful, full of sparkles, creativity, and full of life. I asked her to name her board. She called is “Dream of life.”

The outcome measure from the client’s initial assessment shows that a year ago she felt like she had very little abilities to do her daily activities. She also had very little satisfaction in the things she did indicating signs of childhood sadness and depression. I reassessed her and was pleasantly surprised that most of her scores have improved.

Judith Herman explains that step three in trauma-informed art therapy involves restoring the connection between traumatized individuals and their communities. My client needed to restore connections with important people in her life: her family.

I helped the client to take the lead by encouraging her to share accomplishments and achievements with her parents by sharing her journal writing and reflections. The client felt real accomplishment through working on and finishing a  piece of art. Her parents were pleasantly surprised at her creation and framed her artwork in the living room. They were proud of her and finally recognize their little girl.

Trauma-informed art therapy assists in recovery from exposure to trauma. It reduces stress-related symptoms and enhances resilience to future crisis. I believe that the client’s “dream of life” is the beginning of the development of her abilities and capacities. These skills and abilities were buried when I first met my clients; Now they are expressed through therapy, care, and art!

What we have lost, what we can learn and the road ahead

Anniversaries, birthdays and milestone markers can bring fourth positive emotions like joy and happiness but can also call for sadness, grief and avoidance.

For people with an acquired brain injury the anniversary date of their accident is a day that is clearly remembered. Loss after a brain injury include memory impairments, planning problems , regulating emotions and although these people will forget new name, new faces and daily, the one thing they have engraved in their minds is their anniversary date.

I would like to share a story about a young man learning to cope with the effects of an acquired brain injury. Our Mindful Art group started on May 7, 2015 and I was informed that this is two days before the anniversary of his traumatic motor vehicle accident resulting in two fatalities and one survivor – Tobi. I was informed by his case manager that “this can be a more difficult time for him.” Tobi is a 22 year old young man  who sustained injuries as a result of a severe motor vehicle accident

During this group, participants tried to meditate and learn to carve and print linoleum blocks. This was the first time each participant tried this art activity. Tobi carved his first print called “Turn that frown upside down.” Initially, he drew many set of eyes in his art journal when he was designing his print. However, when it was time to draw on his linoleum block, Tobi’s image evolved into something different – faces expressing emotions. He seemed very pleased with the final result. As each person shared their art work everyone was supportive of each other and was delighted at the results of their efforts. There was an unconscious theme – ghosts, two graves and block of eyes. As I placed each piece of art work in the center of the table, the collective theme that emerged was a big surprise. The mindfulness theme of this session was: judgment + acceptance = surprise! (for further details click here) and this abstract theme became personally meaningful for each  individual person as each was was delightfully surprised by their own creation.

Turn that frown upside down by Tobi Banjo
Turn that frown upside down by Tobi Banjo
Mindful Art Workshop - Spring 2015
Mindful Art Workshop – Participants in the Spring 2015 group

I like to end our group with a gratitude exercise. From previous experience, I have found this exercise to be a powerful experience for people wishing to reflect and found it to be an opportunity for everyone to say something personally meaningful and share their thoughts. So I use the opportunity to explore the topic of anniversaries, as it is also my birthday in 3 days – an anniversary of birth.

I start the gratitude exercise by asking each person to thank themselves and those involved in helping them arrive to the group. It takes a lot of effort and planning to make a decision then stick with it and show up. Next, we thank each other for friendship and company and we thank our community for giving us a safe space to gather. Then I lead the exercise with something I am personally thankful for. I stated to the group that an anniversary is coming up, and that my birthday will be on Sunday. I wanted to express my gratitude for life and being alive and being thankful for my parents who gave me a body and life those many years ago. I could sense some tension from Tobi when I was talking about anniversaries. He was sitting beside me so I could see he was intently listening to my words. Then I asked other people in the group to share what they were grateful for and this is what Tobi said:

“It’s going to be two years since my accident in two days, so I am thankful that I am here and I am thankful for the people who have come into my life and the lessons I’ve learnt throughout these two years.”

When all seems lost and in a moment, the world we thought we knew seems to crumble, we can remember – that the most precious gift we have is our life. By living and surviving we can continue to learn and grow. We can become kinder, wiser and open our hearts in ways we had never previously imagined. When we learn to accept the difficulties of life, we can  create a space in which our real essence can reveal itself in so many surprising ways.

I shared this story with Meka Sadler, another young 24 year old woman that I work with. She had also sustained a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash almost 2 years ago. Two young people, two accidents, two moments that changed lives forever. Now two years later these two people are able to connect in ways that they would have never thought of before. I showed her Tobi’s art work and explained some of the overall details of his creation. Then I asked Meka, “After everything you’ve been through, if you had to give advice to this person (Tobi), what would you say?” She responded:

“It gets better…let go of the past, because it only weighs you down. (Because this is when things started to change for me. When I stopped focusing on the past and focused on what I needed to do) Focus on the new you. And still aim for your old goals and if you don’t achieve them, change your markers of success, or change your course of action”

I suggested to Meka that perhaps she should write her story down and share it with others. Because after all, we do not know how one person can shape another and the most precious gift we have is your precious human life.



A series by RB

Prints and poetry were created by RB. All photographs were taken by Elisheva, rehabilitation student.

Blue Spruce by RB

Fox Bay

The song is bright today

breeze, leaves, needles
create soft melodies

Voice carry
forest sounds


Chorus by RB

Become a community of sound


Growth by RB
Memory by RB Remember Me I’m 41 and still 12

Market Lament

      for dad

Lost in concrete
toward grey sun
seeking warmth.

My feet find earth
herbalists, fishmongers

While you
islands of pine
with silence.

Lost my Green.


Thunder Bird by RB
Thunder Bird by RB


   for Sara

July warmth
my morning
in delicious

Bay mist
in emerging sun

imploring fish
“Don’t feed”

I don’t listen
and like a largemouth
shatter lake glass
for my meal