In September I will be starting a new school-based project. This week I have been reading “Empowering Children through Art and Expression: culturally sensitive ways of healing Trauma and Grief” by Bruce St Thomas and Paul Johnson.
This book is easy to read but offers some really insightful ways that the two authors have supported traumatised and bereaved children including child refugees from the Cambodian genocide and children who lost a parent during the 9/11 terrorist attack in America.
The book includes information on the neuro-biological and physical impact of trauma on child development, building on the trauma-informed research and approaches of Bessel Van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma) and Daniel Siegel (Parenting From the Inside Out) among others.
The authors have a deep respect for cultural sensitivity when working with traumatised clients, particularly the refugee children in the Multi-Cultural programme who have not only experienced the horror of war where they lost family members, but then had a second loss of culture as they moved to America. The children are invited to play with culture, sometimes exploring themes from their birth land, sometimes using themes from their new culture and sometimes mixing the two.
“Rather than trying to fit children into formulas, we believe we should let them tell us about themselves through their art, their body language, their emotions and their words.”(St Thomas & Johnson, 2007, p. 28)
The authors believe that child play is a fundamental part of the healing process:
“One of the ways children are able to manage trauma is through play. Free play is fundamental to child development.”(St Thomas & Johnson, 2007, p. 12)
The book describes many of the ways this play is used within the therapy
“Creating personal myths, stories, rituals, spontaneous expression through art, drama, action and play hold the door open for moments of reflection on the deeper meaning, purpose and choices that we have to know why we are here and to gain insights as to the meaning of our human pain and suffering.(St Thomas & Johnson, 2007, p. 36)
Without reflection there is no opportunity to either release or make connection to the feelings that are stored within our own bodies.”
Myths and story
The book explores how stories like Hansel and Gretel, the Queen of Tung Ting Lake and The Iliad can be used as a metaphor to explore the traumatic experiences
“Deeply embedded within each persons life story are essential truths like those found in fairy tales and myth structures.”( St Thomas & Johnson, 2007, p. 26)
In particular, they choose stories with themes of being lost or journeying to a new place which support the students to explore their own experiences and feelings.
Rituals are used to support the therapy. This includes rituals for how the sessions runs such as opening each group with a check in circle, but also includes more personalised rituals created by and for the children such as creating a Phoenix Rising with a 14 foot wing span (4.26m) as a symbol of hope:
“At closing ceremony the mythic Phoenix was placed in the field house at America’s Camp. When the children arrived all of the house lights were out with only stage lights illuminating the bird. Unknown to the children the bird had not only been covered with their personal drawings but had also been covered with a special translucent glow paint… As the phoenix was elevated above the children, the bird glowed in the darkness as it freely turned, casting an almost mythical appearance in the closing ceremony. When the house lights were turned on the large egg was removed from the dark material symbolizing the ashes. The CITs gave a talk about what America’s Camp had meant to them and recovered the cranes from within the egg, giving each child a paper crane with a message written of support.”(St Thomas & Johnson, 2007, p. 139)
Reading this reminded me of the elaborate rituals with large withy-stick puppets and sculptures created by the Welfare State in the 80’s such as the Raising of the Titanic (Welfare State Handbook).
Some rituals are designed to give structure and form – a stability in which the child can be safe enough to explore, other rituals are designed to give emotional depth to a particular moment.
The authors describe working with children who have experienced high levels of trauma and grief and using stories, games and rituals to transform those experiences in a way which allows the child to process and heal.
This includes allowing children to fully express their feelings, even the ones which may be overwhelming – to let out their rage in the tornado room by hitting the punch bag or throwing themselves against the padded walls. There are times to scream, times to mend what is broken, times to build something new, times to eat familiar foods together and share stories from their cultures, times to weep and times of joy and support.
“Across all cultures there are four universal healing salves: singing, dancing, story telling, and silence. The stories, songs, dances, rituals and prayers humanity re-awaken and sustain the divine child both within our communities and within ourselves.”(St Thomas & Johnson, 2007, p. 123)
I really enjoyed reading this book, there are lots of interesting ideas and resources, particularly for group work. I am not sure how many of the ideas would translate easily to a school environment where there may not be a whole group with a shared trauma experience.
I also believe that, if someone is just beginning to explore trauma work, a foundation in some of the current trauma theory would be a good underpinning before diving straight into the approaches used in this book. Using a story or even elaborate ritual in itself is not necessarily going to be helpful if this is not built on a trauma informed therapy style. But if you already have a grounding in books like the Body Keeps the Score, approaches like Somatic Experiencing and poly-vagal theory, and are looking for some practical ideas for group sessions, then this book should definitely be on your reading list.