Porter Art therapy

A parent’s mini guide to helping their child in the aftermath of a life-threatening event

More and more devastating incidents continue to occur publicly.  In the past season in my own region of America communities have suffered from Hurricane Sandy, and now this small school in Newtown, Connecticut has been shocked and traumatized by an act of human madness.

Any time of year and perhaps more so amidst the holiday season, losing loved ones introduces paramount emotions that may be too difficult to process alone.  To the families who have lost a child my heart and mind grieve sadness, as the unnatural process leaves no words in our language to describe who a parent becomes without their child.  I send thoughts of strength and hope for meaningful memorials honoring the time the families were given with their children.

This brief column is written for the parents of children who have experienced a life-threatening event.  Here are a few key pointers to keep in mind for the health of your family and children.

Children perform best when they feel safe.

A sense of safety for children originates in their surroundings.  As parents, always remain calm in front of your children.  At times this may be very challenging, however adult conversation and heightened emotional upset is best expressed without the children present.  Remember they are emotional sponges.

Be close and cozy with your children.

Often verbal discussion is overwhelming when processing traumatic events.  Comforting them is possible by providing your unconditional and loving physical presence.

Play with your children.

Be active, go outside and move together.  Get out the art supplies and instruments allowing yourself to be free with your children.  Healthy, fun activities with parents uplift ones sense of safety and connection to their family.

Turn off the television where the children play, eat, and exist. 

Continuous exposure to traumatic stories through the media may be harmful to some individuals, especially children.  If you want to watch the news and maintain your child’s sense of safety be thoughtful and watch or listen when they are occupied in another room or place.

Tell and remind your children they are free to share their thoughts and ask questions.

Truly listen, make this offer for your child.  Stop yourself from sharing too much of your own experience and give them opportunity to express themselves. If they are unsure what to say or ask, let them know that is ok.


Teach them about different emotions.

Role-play, draw pictures, use metaphors, and problem-solve with them how to cope with difficult feelings.  Flood their vocabulary with descriptive words they can draw upon in the future.  For example, Anger may also reflect: aggravation, agitation, cruelty, destructiveness, dislike, envy, frustration, fury, grouchiness, grumpiness, irritation, jealousy, outrage, spite, wrath, any many more descriptive words. More elaborate words for happiness may include: amusement, cheerfulness, delight, elation, enthusiasm, exhilaration, hope, pleasure, pride, triumph, zeal, and so forth.  This can be introduced playfully with no direct association to a traumatizing event.  Emotion strengthening may be its own activity for the benefit of improving communication and understanding between you and your children.

The Emotional Mirror Game is enjoyable for all ages open to improvisation.

This can be played between one parent and one child, or gather everyone in one circle.  The activity is simple.  Encourage everyone to take turns naming an emotion and expressing this with a movement and sound.  Then the partner or group repeats the feeling named and mirrors the movement and sound.  This is a great game to teach your children different emotions.

Offer choices.

This may be for shared experience (shall we go play baseball or football?) or for daily tasks such as planning dinner (do you want to have brussel sprouts with chicken tonight or peppers?).  Keep in mind that choice is important, rather than open-ended possibilities or telling them what to do.  This lets their unsettled mind know that you are available and you care, by providing structure with a bit of freedom.  Traumatized people or children often react with increased anxiety if they feel trapped or controlled, genuinely fearing the repeat of a helpless, life-threatening experience.  The more opportunity you give your children to make choices for themselves the more in control they will begin to feel again.

When upset feelings do surface, provide descriptions for your child to understand what they are experiencing.  For instance, if your child is acting angry, it is helpful to say, “You look angry right now.  I want you to know I am right here and when you calm down I would love to talk to you.”  A statement like this gives the child a healthy mantra to think about as they learn to self-soothe through a difficult time.  Depending upon the age of the child and their development this coping intervention may vary.  Some children may need physical touch to help calm them, while others may need a brief time alone.

Also bear in mind that if symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder persist and/or symptoms of depression begin to present seeking professional help is important.

Ongoing behaviors to Alert you to seek Clinical support

  • Persistent Nightmares
  • Regressive behaviors (bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, etc.)
  • Anxiety, nervousness (hair pulling, scratching, etc.)
  • Lack of interest in favored activities, withdrawn
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty with separation from parents
  • Rapid mood fluctuation
  • Declining school grades

Keep in mind that many of the above responses may occur naturally for several weeks or months after a traumatic experience.   If the symptoms are affecting the health of your child and you notice evident differences in their demeanor or behaviors seeking therapeutic support from educated and experienced physicians, clinicians, and social workers is highly recommended.

Art Therapy is a highly effective modality for treating post-traumatic stress disorder among children and adults.   As written earlier, talking about life threatening events may be very uncomfortable.

Beginning with a picture allows the mind freedom to express what may be a disorganized sense of the experience and gain a new distance from the memories.  As the storyline is drawn out, the family or child may then share their work of art.  The trained clinician may have them proceed among copious techniques to innovate a safe outcome.  In this process genuine re-networking occurs in the brain, which results in a healthier sense of self.  The person who may have been traumatized is able, with the proper support, to transcend what may be an isolated perspective and embrace a new sense of connected self.

A very powerful layer of this healing process occurs as the Art Therapist is trained to guide this process and care for the child’s sense of safety.  This allows for the child or family to cope with the traumatic event at a pace that works for them.  A great therapist will always end a session providing a sense of closure and understanding of the individual session.

In the United States there is an art therapy finder on the American Art Therapy Association website http://www.americanarttherapyassociation.org/

or you may go directly there from here, http://www.find-a-therapist.com/directory?cat=artther

If you have interest in working with me directly, you need help finding a Creative Arts Therapist in your region, or you have questions about the field contact me,


This entry was published on December 17, 2012 at 5:14 am. It’s filed under Mental Health Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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