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When Trauma Happens, Children Draw: Part I

When trauma happens, children draw.

After a disaster, children’s art and play provides a window into the experience of trauma. And this innate impulse to communicate through creative expression is more than just another picture or just “pretend”—it reflects the neuropsychological nature of trauma itself.

Media coverage of the growing disaster in Myanmar reminds me that there will soon be 1000's of child victims of this disaster, each needing food, shelter, and other basic needs to simply survive. They will also eventually need mental health intervention that is meaningful and addresses both the short and long term affects of trauma. Imagining how those children have been irrevocably changed by the current disaster additionally reminds me of the innumerable children I have worked with as an art therapist and how their young lives were altered by hurricanes, tornados, and the like.

Children relive their traumas not only in their minds, but also through their actions. In part, their actions are often attempts to regain mastery over events that have disrupted

their lives. Art, play, and imagination are ways children naturally express the unspeakable and circumvent “talk” that is difficult or temporarily unavailable.

Non-verbal modalities such as drawing are effective because of the impact that trauma often has on language. Language, a function of declarative memory, is generally not readily accessible to trauma survivors of any age after a traumatic event. In particular, Broca’s area, a section of the brain that controls language is affected, making it difficult to relate the trauma narrative. In fact, when a trauma survivor attempts to speak, PET scans actually show that Broca’s area tends to shut down. Meanwhile, other parts of the brain, including the limbic system, are in overdrive, particularly in individuals with posttraumatic stress symptoms.

We certainly don’t know all there is to know about why art or play might be helpful to children who have experienced trauma. Some theorize that structured sensory experiences including drawing or play make progressive exposure of the trauma story tolerable. Under appropriate circumstances, it may be that these forms of communication are exactly what are necessary to bypass language and allow sensory aspects of trauma to be expressed rather than suppressed.

The simplicity of children’s art and play as responses to trauma has been understated as to their importance in trauma recovery. And does all this just apply to children? No, I don’t think so. The returning military from Iraq, students exposed to a random sniper’s fire, and all those who survive any disaster have the potential to benefit from creative expression, post-trauma. We all encode psychological trauma in a sensory way and we all have the possibility to use our senses in the recovery process.

Part 2