Michaela Herr, M.A., A.T.R.
Michaela Herr, M.A., A.T.R.
Art Therapist
Children’s Aid Society

Helping Emotional Trauma Through Art

Here, Michaela Herr tells a compelling story about her work as an arts therapist using drawing and discussion to help kids recover from trauma and neglect. To learn more about how the arts can improve kids’ emotional lives, read this article by Jennifer Drake [link], a developmental psychologist at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

I am an art therapist practicing in York, Pennsylvania, working with children ages 3 to 18 who have social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Every day, I meet with children and families struggling to meet basic needs like food, housing, transportation, and, most importantly, safety.

Many children have experienced trauma and neglect—and require a high level of treatment. A good number of the children have witnessed intense domestic violence, and several live in foster care, kinship care, or are in the process of being adopted.

The city in which I work is poor and unsafe. Violence, gangs, and drugs knock on the door more than do opportunity and success. Parents of the children I see often struggle with unresolved traumatic events of their own. The weight of this city is heavy and, at times, unbearable. The arts can help. Here are some true stories to demonstrate just how.

From aggression to happiness

A mother brought her 7-year-old to art therapy because of his aggressive behaviors.  Most recently, he had killed the family cat by drowning it in the bathtub. His thoughts often race, and he talks about going in and out of dreams, not knowing what is real and what is in his mind. He talks about his anger and how he beats people up when he’s mad.  I told him it’s okay to be mad, but that there are ways to express his anger other than violence. He looked up, surprised, and asked, “There is?” I gave him some markers and paper and asked him to draw his anger. He became more focused. His intensity lessened.  After a few minutes, he stopped drawing and looked up at me and announced happily, “I’m an artist!” His face lit up, and he was amazed by what he could do. His happiness was infectious.

From anxiety to calm

A 6-year-old who has witnessed domestic violence between his mother and father and was being bullied at school for his small stature. I found out that he admires superheroes and often wears Captain America t-shirts. I suggested that he use these shirts as the inspiration to create a shield for himself. And I encouraged him to use the shields anytime he feels the need for protection, especially when other children say hurtful words to him at school. I told him the shield had to stay at home, but that he could imagine holding the shield at school like an invisible power. He straightened his posture and smiled.  This appeared to give him confidence. I’ve never seen him stand so tall.

From fear to a sense of control

An 11-year-old had been in and out of foster care since he was three due to neglectful parenting. He sees me regularly. He has a fear of his artwork being destroyed at home, so he keeps all of it in my room. I had him write out a time that he felt like trash or discarded, and he asked me not to look while he wrote about this. I closed my eyes and turned around. After ten minutes or so, I asked him to rip up his paper and place it in the blender. He smiled as he pushed the button to destroy his ripped paper. We poured out his pulp, and I asked him to create something new with it. He created, “The Wall,” which he described as a way to control who came in and who went out. This wall functioned like the shield described above. Both children created a piece of art that could metaphorically protect them from the onslaughts of their environment. 

These are just a few examples of how the arts can affect a child’s emotional well-being. The children I work with live in a continual crisis. Events happen quickly, and they feel little control over these mostly negative events. When these children pause to create a work of art and talk to me about it, they pause to step outside of the crisis. And this is powerful.

I believe real healing begins to take place in this pause. The arts create an outlet to express, discuss, and thereby cope with the stresses of their lives. Art in a safe space can allow children to process emotions that are too challenging to verbalize.  For some, working with an art therapist is the only time they feel heard, validated, wanted, and accepted. The art room is a consistent, reliable, predictable, judgment-free safety zone—just what these children are missing in their lives.  Through the arts, I can support and guide these children.

So how does art therapy affect children’s emotional lives? Some children discover something new about their feelings. Some discover they have artistic potential. When art therapy is done well, children feel understood. They feel stronger. They feel heard. And they can even feel joy and hope.

The children I work with are far more stressed than most children. But all children experience pain and anxiety. Creating a work of art to express these negative feelings, and exploring what it means with a trusted guide, can help everyone.

Learn More

Shaila Dewan, “Using Crayons to Exercise Katrina,” The New York Times

“The Power of Art: Can Creativity Cure the Sick?” BBC News Magazine

Stacey Nelson, “Art Therapy: Controlling Symptoms [of ADHD] with Creativity,” ADDitude: Living Well with Attention Deficit

Vanessa A. Camilleri, Healing the Inner City Child: Creative Arts Therapy with At-Risk Youth, 2007

Judy Sutherland, Gwenn Waldman, and Carolyn Collins, “Art Therapy Connection: Encouraging Troubled Youth to Stay in School and Succeed,” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association