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Navigating trauma through creative expression

By Kristine Nunn, LMFT


Trauma experienced by children is now deemed a public health issue by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and necessitates a strong community response. Traumatic experiences that occur during childhood can have serious health and social consequences into adulthood, including high blood pressure and gastrointestinal issues, difficulty finding or maintaining employment and difficulties in maintaining relationships.

Trauma and its affects

There is a long list of experiences that can lead to trauma. Some children are heavily affected by a single traumatic event that their mind forces them to replay. This could be an unexpected death of a family member, a near-death experience or anything else that drastically shakes up their normal routine. For others, trauma may be a result of ongoing experiences, such as poverty, food insecurity, domestic violence or having a constant change in caregivers.

A CDC study conducted alongside Kaiser Permanente found that trauma disrupts children’s development. It can also lead to increased suicidal ideation and negative coping mechanisms, which can result in future addictive or self-harming behaviors. Trauma can even be intergenerational: it can be passed onto one’s children, grandchildren and so on. Clearly, trauma must be dealt with early on to avoid long-term effects such as these.

Treating trauma

Fortunately, this same CDC study found that children’s trauma is treatable – kids who have experienced trauma are not irreparably damaged. There are helpful, well-researched treatments – both at the clinical level (formal treatment) and the community level (relationships with teachers, church members, neighbors and other local organizations) – that help heal children’s trauma effects, and restore wellbeing.

I oversee Centerstone’s CT3 (Children’s Trauma Level 3) program in Indiana, which works with children and families who live with trauma. We partner with school systems in Union and Wayne counties to connect children with trauma to evidence-based mental health services. Beyond providing this weekly evidence-based curriculum, we also offer experiential therapy, using hands-on learning opportunities, such as drumming circles and art, to engage children’s creative sides.

Unlocking creativity

Trauma can lock children into survival mode and cause them to lose their creativity. Experiential treatment helps form positive pathways in children’s brains and helps them reconnect with their creativity. One method we use is art therapy. This year, we developed a new project utilizing the power of art and creativity, The Skateboard Project. Young participants were provided skateboard decks for them to customize with paints, drawings, glitter and other bling. We asked them to focus their designs on the theme of Superheroes and let them take it from there.

While it may seem simple, customizing their skateboards allows them to express themselves which in turn unhinges their trauma. Not all children have the words to express their trauma, and projects like this provide them with an outlet to express it through nonverbal communication. Making art engages the mind and body and diverts children from other harmful coping mechanisms.

The sooner trauma is worked through, the less long-term effects it will have. Let us continue to advocate for children with trauma and help them live with unhindered creativity and self-expression.

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