The Use of Art Therapy With Children and Adolescents Who Have a Trauma History

Art Therapy has a longer, richer history than one might think. This excellent paper submitted by reader Paula Jensen delves into the origins and evolution of this creative intervention and, more specifically, its many applications in treatment of trauma. Ms. Jensen earned a gift certificate to for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!



Art therapy has been an accepted treatment modality in the therapeutic community for approximately 60 development of art therapy psychological years. Throughout this time, art therapy has been utilized in the treatment of several psychological, the purpose of its use with treating traumatic effects, including amelioration of disorders including trauma. The following review of the literature discusses the disturbances, fostering identity development, self-awareness, self-esteem, its effectiveness associated with the treatment of trauma, and its use as an adjunct with Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

The Use of Art Therapy With Children and Adolescents Who Have a Trauma History

           Art has been a prominent part of world culture since the beginnings of man. The oldest recorded piece of abstract art is dated approximately 70,000 years (Whitehouse, 2002). Cavemen carved hieroglyphics as a way to tell stories and communicate messages while Ancient Egyptians carved markings and pictures into the sides of tombs to symbolize the belief of what happened to the human spirit after death. Native Americans use sand paintings in their healing and initiation ceremonies (Ammann & Sandner, 1991). In his book, Man and His Symbols, psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1964) discussed the value of symbols in relation to human existence. Judith Rubin (1999), a pioneer in art therapy, reported that healers, past and present, utilized art-making because of the universality and related power of the symbolic mode. After being used for self-expression and healing for thousands of years, art is now an accepted modality for the treatment of psychological issues by the therapeutic community.

Art Therapy

            Art therapy is described by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) (2011) as “[the use of] the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages” (p. 1). Art therapy is based on the belief that “the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem, self-awareness, and achieve insight” (AATA, 2011, p. 1). Contemporary counselors utilize art therapy to address a variety of mental health issues including: “anxiety, depression, substance abuse and addictions; family and relationship issues; abuse and domestic violence; social and emotional difficulties related to disability and illness; trauma and loss; physical, cognitive, and neurological problems; and psychosocial difficulties related to medical illness” (AATA, 2011, p. 1). Art therapy is an innovative modality for addressing a variety of traumatic experiences when working with children and adolescents (Baker, 2006; Buschel & Madsen, 2006; Finn, 2003; Kennedy, 2008; Malchoidi, 2006; Pretorius, 2010; Yohani, 2008).

The Development of Art Therapy

            Carl Jung theorized about the importance of exploring and gaining awareness into the unknown self, memories, and understanding the symbolism within the unconscious mind (Jung, 1916; Jung, 1964). Jung, who participated in creative processes in his own life, explored these symbols with clients and helped them to recreate and interpret the meaning of their experiences (Malchiodi, 2006). Throughout his life, Jung continued to draw and paint, in addition to portraying his dreams in writing and carvings in wood and stone (Gladding, 2006). Through his use of art in psychoanalysis, Carl Jung demonstrated that the artistic process is capable of facilitating a deeper understanding of each level of an individual’s psyche.

Open and read the full document here: Art Therapy and Trauma


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.