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Art Therapy, Children and Interpersonal Violence

Art therapy helps children release their inner monsters.

"Frankenstein Got Beat Up," © 2013 Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Art therapy, an approach used in the treatment of trauma reactions, is often a primary form of therapy with children who are recovering from abuse, and neglect or are witnesses to family violence. For several decades, art therapy has been documented as an important method in addressing the emotional pain of young survivors of interpersonal violence. In general, practitioners contend that therapeutic art expression and play are ways that children mediate and resolve traumatic experiences. We also now know that the experience of interpersonal violence can result in posttraumatic stress reactions that often interfere with language areas of the brain. In particular, posttraumatic stress reactions cause problems in Broca’s area that governs verbalization; in some cases, Broca’s area is actually shut down if trauma memories are overwhelming or recurrent. Art expression allows communication of trauma memories through the sensory aspects of drawing, painting and other media, thus often bypassing the impact of posttraumatic reactions' impact on Broca's area. Emerging research indicates that art expression may even help stimulate verbalization of emotionally laden events, including traumatic ones.

More than two decades ago I first wrote about art therapy’s emerging efficacy as a treatment for children impacted by family violence from a personal perspective: “Like many art therapists, I have often utilized art to make sense of trauma in my own life. Art expression has been the key to understanding loss, crisis and emotional upheaval when words could not adequately express or contain meaning. The value of art expression is not only the images themselves, but also immersion in the creative process…As Rollo May notes, ‘In all creativity, we destroy and rebuild the world, and at the same time we inevitably rebuild and reform ourselves.’”

"Monster Mask," © 2013 Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

At other junctures in treatment, the monsters depicted in art and play are less literal, but are just as real. They are what I call the “inner monsters” that communicate the sensory, emotional and psychosocial experiences of abuse and neglect. Because a monster is sometimes perceived as hideous or repulsive, children may also convey their own self-perceptions of being flawed or unwanted in their monster images. These depictions often reflect guilt and shame-laden beliefs that these young survivors caused their physical abuse, sexual assault or psychological torture. In all cases, these images reveal profound sadness, loneliness, anxiety and fear common to individuals whose lives have been threatened or controlled.

"Mom, My Monster," © 2013 Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

**This is the first of a multi-part series on creative arts therapy and interpersonal violence. Upcoming posts address the key neurobiological reasons why art expression ameliorates violence, particularly in children and adults who have experienced interpersonal trauma, how creative art therapies trump bullying, and what we can and cannot deduce from abused children’s art expressions.

Be well,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC

© 2013 Cathy Malchiodi

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For information on Trauma-Informed Art Therapy®--- visit Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute at


Malchiodi, C. A. (1990, 1997). Breaking the silence: Art therapy with children from violent homes. New York: Routledge [look for the new edition in 2014].

Malchiodi, C. A. (2012). Art therapy and the brain. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.), Handbook of Art Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Malchiodi, C. A. (2008). Creative interventions with traumatized children. New York: Guilford Press.

Waller, D. (2006). Art therapy for children: How it leads to change. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 11, 271-282.

Gilroy, A. (2006). Art therapy, research and evidence-based practice. London: SAGE Publications.