Small Objects that Affect Big Change: How Art Materials Can Shift Family Dynamics

This submission comes from Alessandra Longo, LMSW, MA. It’s a beautifully-written account of one of those moments that makes the job of a child therapist so fulfilling. Alessandra received a gift certificate to for her submission. (And so can you!)

My five-year-old patient picked a scrap of ribbon off my desk. She wound the bright pink fabric tightly between her petite fingers. “I want this in my hair,” she told me. Longing clung to the delicate features of her face.

I was thrown. This child had never made a direct demand on me before. Expressing desires openly appeared to be treacherous territory. Normally she slid comfortably into the role of cautious explorer. Her eyes would stay glued to my face as she picked up a paintbrush or caressed a baby doll. I sensed her apprehension was linked to the anticipation of a punitive response from me.

My office served as a direct contrast to her home life. For 45 minutes a week she was spared the squabble and noise that accompanied multiple siblings crammed into a small apartment. Attention was focused solely on her and my patient was ambivalent. I naturally began to take on a mother-like transference throughout the treatment. Unlike my patient’s mother, I did not respond to her actions with anger or indifference. The young girl met my encouragement with scrutiny. A celebratory approach towards her endeavors in the therapeutic relationship clashed dramatically with what she had known in the past. This dissimilarity of attitudes towards attachment made trusting me in the room extremely difficult.

Excited to show my patient that I was happy to fulfill her request I grabbed a baby doll from the shelf to demonstrate how I would tie the ribbon in my patient’s hair. Her face immediately fell and she said with resignation, “Just give it to the baby.” Sadness overwhelmed me as I realized I had disappointed her by acting just like everyone else. Inevitably, I too would realize her desires were too much and she would end up empty handed.

I prodded the emotional chasm between us with a few words. “Does this happen at home? Do you feel like the babies get everything?” She nodded lethargically. I fully took in the tiny child standing in front of me. She wore a pair of her sister’s hand-me-down pants that were falling off her narrow hips. Her face looked like her mother’s and she told me she was the same color as her father. I realized I had many shards of a personality in front of me but which parts belonged only to my patient?

“I don’t want to give this ribbon to the baby. I want to give it to you. You are the only person I am playing with right now.” My words did not reach her immediately but after a few moments she came and sat close to me. “Can you tie it like a bow?” she asked softly. “Of course I can,” I replied. We sat together on the floor. I hoped this moment would stand out as vividly to my patient as the neon ribbon tenderly secured to her dark tresses.

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