Friday, April 20, 2012

Communicating through Art- Art Therapy and the Trauma Child

A great deal of Keenan's trauma issues manifest themselves as communication problems.   Unintelligible speech, giving answers to questions other than the ones asked ("Where are your shoes?" Answer: My jacket is in my closet"), speaking as softly as a mouse, taking 2 minutes to answer a simple question ("Do you have homework?"), asking nonsense questions or questions which are completely obvious, and pretending that he didn't hear me --- these are all behaviors that he exhibits from the time he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed.

 "Uh can't fine ma palemkas" drooled out at a butterfly's decibel level for "I can't find my pajamas," pajamas which he'll actually be holding while it says it, is a nightly occurrence in our house.

He's had speech evaluations, IEP evaluations, psychological evaluations, etc. and they have all determined the same thing:  he is a bright child with no speech impediments or language processing disorders, who can read at grade level.

He can speak remarkably well when he wants to share something that he means business about:  "Can I ride my bike please, Mom" or "Miles hit my right eye with his left hand!"

The rest of the time is a complete struggle with him.

Until we can help him resolve his trust and control issues and begin to heal from early childhood trauma, we have to look to different ways to communicate with him about feelings, life lessons, etc.

Art has been a huge help.

Last week, Keenan raised all sorts of trouble for himself when he attacked a child on the playground.  He was upset that a football game was not fair with uneven teams (amazing for a child who insists he cannot count past 3 on homework day, right? wink wink), so he told a boy to quit.  The boy would not, so Keenan punched this child in the head and pushed him onto the asphalt.


School handled the problem really well, in terms of consequences and discipline.  But at home, I knew that we needed to address the issue.

Talking about it was instantly frustrating. I know better than to ask questions about what happened, but when I tried to talk with Keenan about how he was feeling at the time, Keenan denied that a child named Gilberto was at his school; denied that he punched anyone; and once denied that he even went to school.

A major lesson I have learned in my life is:  you can't work with a liar.  If someone is lying, they hold the power in the lie.  You can't force a PTSD/RAD child to tell the truth.

This is where art comes into play.

Keenan, who will not talk about such incidents, will draw about them with crayons, markers and colored pencils.   He was feeling terribly upset at himself for hurting someone (the child was hurt, parents were called, and the boy went home for the day), so instead of driving into him what he should not have done (because he knows that), I decided that he needed to do something positive and empowering.  By drawing what he should have done, I was trying to help him create a pseudo-muscle memory of the good choice.

"K-Man, how about you draw a picture of you doing something nice with Gilberto.  You know, you being a good friend to him?"

Drawing like this happens at the kitchen table.  I send the other kids outside or in the basement to play to limit distractions.  I put on classical music and bake/make dinner while Keenan is drawing.

My goal is to create a completely warm sensory environment to envelope him.  A cheery, yellow kitchen; wonderful music; delicious smells and sounds of Mom cooking.

A while later, Keenan proudly called me over to show me his masterpiece:

(Keenan giving Gilberto money)

Whatcha doing there, buddy? I asked him.

Giving Gilberto money.

Mental Forehead Slap.  Clearly we forgot to communicate somewhere along the way about appropriate and inappropriate ways to make people want to be your friend.  But I have to admit, I found Keenan's earnest-ness in his attempt to be endearing.

So, we had a bit of a talk about whether a person needs money to make a good friend.  Like, does Keenan only make friends with kids who have money?  Of course not.  So what does a good friend do?

"Hey, this is a great picture.  Now how about you draw a picture of you and Gilberto playing something as friends?"

Keenan and Gilberto playing cards.

Hopefully, with time, consistency, therapy and growth, Keenan will begin to verbally communicate in age-appropriate and effective manners.     But until then, I am so thankful that we have found an alternative means to help him process feeling and events.