Art Therapy as an Alternative for Children with Traumatic Histories

Art Therapy as an Alternative for Children with Traumatic Histories

Carol Edelstein, AdoptionWorks Program Director

Art therapy can be an effective therapeutic approach to working with children and adolescents who struggle with attachment issues and traumatic past experiences.  It is a form of expressive therapy that uses art materials, such as paints, pastels, drawing, clay, collage, etc.  It is a type of therapy that combines traditional psychotherapeutic theories and techniques with psychological, interpersonal and somatic aspects of the creative process and self-expression.   As a part of integrative health care, art therapy can complement and support traditional types of therapy and interventions.

From a developmental prospective, children commonly use art and play to process their experiences.  Peggy Kolodny, an Art Psychotherapist with The Art Therapy Collective in Owings Mills, Maryland, has stated that “the nonverbal, multi sensory quality of art fosters a safe environment to express implicit and explicit traumatic issues that are challenging to access via cognitive paths.”  This makes a lot of sense as another potentially successful method of helping a child or adolescent who is struggling to access and work through painful feelings, memories and events from their past.  These feelings and events may not be consciously accessible or possible for the child to verbalize. 

In art therapy, there is no need for the client to have any particular artistic talent.  The creating of art is simply used as a tool to access and work through traumatic events that may be difficult to access through more traditional therapeutic approaches.  The art therapist is able to develop a trusting relationship with the child through sitting together and focusing on the art, rather than approaching difficult topics in a more direct manner.  Children often have difficulty speaking about their concerns, feelings and past trauma, but they can draw and paint these images through art therapy.   

Art Therapy makes use of symbols and images as an alternative language.  Memories, emotions, desires and concerns are externalized and released through the use of art.  Once a therapeutic environment has been established, art therapists “get out of the way” while the client is able to relax and use their intuition to guide the making of their art.  The images that are created by the client, which are often accessed subconsciously, can reveal hidden aspects of the self.  By tapping into right brain activity through the spontaneous creating of art, the judging, censoring and rationale left-brain is bypassed.  Art therapy is useful for children who experienced trauma prior to the development of language, as they do not have words to express the trauma, but the symbolic memories remain in the subconscious part of the brain.

This type of treatment intervention can assist the child and family to re-create elements of secure attachment that were unavailable in the child’s early developmental stages (empathy, positive affect, support, reciprocity and love).  It includes the celebration of achievements, reinforcing positive changes, and enhancing hope for the future.  

If you are interested in learning more about art therapy, or in finding an art therapist in your area, you can contact The American Art Therapy Association, or visit their website at    

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