Four-year-old Rebecca is intent on using crayons and paper in her child care center. Holding a red crayon tightly, she makes heavy marks on the paper.
The young child is expressing her feelings about a recent automobile accident in which she and her mother were injured. Both were transported by ambulance to the hospital. It's been several weeks since the accident, but whenever she hears a siren or the screeching of tires she panics.
After the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, six-year-old Danny draws a picture of two planes. When asked about his drawing, Danny tells his teacher, "I'm drawing a 'good' plane and a 'bad' plane."
During a personal trauma or national crisis, it is important for teachers and parents to give children the tools and opportunities to express themselves. Like adults, children feel the need to talk through their fears and concerns. They look to us to give them stability in an often unstable world. Children feel cared for when the normal routine continues, when they are listened to, and when they know their questions are just as important as answers. When a crisis occurs, be extra vigilant and look for the following signs in children:
Using Art as a Means of Therapy
- Expression of a broad range of emotions
- Physical illness (particularly stomach aches)
- Problems sleeping (waking up, nightmares)
- Separation anxiety when away from parents
- Increased attachment to adults
- Irritability or expressions of anger
Whether children are victims of abuse, fearful of the dark, witnesses to a crime, or experience tragedy by watching television, they are seldom able to cope with traumatic events. Young children are often not able to express or discuss their thoughts and feelings because of their limited vocabularies and language skills. One way for teachers and parents to encourage children to talk about what they have seen, heard, or experienced is to give them art materials. By drawing, children are able to communicate without using words. Julie Barlar, a registered clinical art therapist in Nashville, TN, offers the following statements to explain why art is so important to children, especially when they have experienced traumatic events:
- Children process what they learn through play.
- Drawing helps control the situation. Once an idea or thought is drawn, it becomes concrete. Children can manipulate it, hang it on a wall, stomp it, or tear it up.
- If a child is anxious about a situation, encourage the youngster to draw a picture of a "safe" place.
- If the drawing is scary, the child may tear up the picture and use the pieces to make something pretty.
- Encourage the children to use crayons, marking pencils, and paper. Clay and paints may cause a child to express more emotions than they are able to cope with.
Once children have put their "thoughts" on paper, it is up to a teacher or parent to interpret what has been said. When children have experienced traumatic events, signs such as these often surface in their art.
Carolyn R. Tomlin has taught early childhood education in public school and on the university level. She is the author of What I Wish It Hadn't Taken Me So Long to Learn, available at www.1stbooks.com
- Young children may draw themselves very small and others very large. Experts in art therapy believe the child feels he or she has little control over the situation.
- If the child has a phobia about animals, for example, the dog or cat may appear much larger in the drawing and loom over the child. In this situation, the child feels powerless to control the animal.
- If an adult has abused a child, the abuser may appear large and frightening.