When Charles Perrault, in 1697, decided to pen the story he and others had heard by word of mouth about Cinderella, he had no idea he had started ‘the Cinderella movement,’ a contagious frenzy to create endless versions of the classic fairy tale packed with emotions, hopes, and dreams. Cinderella, like many other fantasy stories, is the product of a creative mind that inspires many young children up to this day.
Without imagination or creative work, we deny children the possibility to experience a fantasy that will make them enact their dreams and keep them company for days on end.
But if we look closely at imagination, we discover a few interesting facts. In a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Colin A. Ross, a clinician, author, and founder of The Colin A. Ros Institute for Psychological Trauma, states the following:
Regular exposure to abuse can create a fertile ground for developing imagination, fantasy, and creativity. Imaginary friends are more than just a game with the self. It is a coping mechanism conjured by the brain to soothe the child’s pain by turning their attention away from what is happening.
Dr. Colin A. Ross also explains that in repression, information moves vertically; it is pushed down or suppressed, moving it into the subconscious domain, this is where the child shuts down. Instead, in the case of dissociation, it moves horizontally into a different area of the brain, taking an altered form (imaginative characters). Both scenarios have a detrimental impact when they are taken to the extreme. Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, identity, and memory. Suppression is just as destructive for a person’s mind because when you suppress you push down, you don’t eliminate which means that these subconscious traumatic thoughts will eventually surface in a nasty way that will impact your life and your relationships.
Regression on the other hand, is an unconscious defense mechanism where the individual reverts to an earlier developmental stage. Traumatized children don’t grow with their peers; they are left behind on their own and will continue that pattern through adulthood if they do not get the help and care they need to strive in life.
Given trauma shrinks the hippocampus, and the hippocampus is involved in learning and memory, the traumatized child does not have the same learning capabilities as other children. When a child releases the stress hormone cortisol day in day out, it hardwires the pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala which locks it into constant fight or flight. The amygdala’s main job is to regulate emotional memories and fear responses, so it is no wonder that in a traumatized child, or adult affected by prolonged trauma, the amygdala is much bigger; learning is not their primary concern, surviving is, hence the amygdala adapts to accommodate that fear response.
As an art therapist interested in children’s trauma, I cannot stress the importance of helping children affected by trauma to thrive in school and balance the creative/imaginative side with the analytical and practical side of learning. These children with no mental or developmental disabilities have challenges in school because their pathways have not had the same opportunity to form as the child sitting next to them. These children don’t have the same head start and advantages at school as a child raised in a nonviolent and loving family; they learn differently because their brain has adapted to their unfortunate circumstance.
Whether the trauma is caused by war, physical or sexual violence, bullying, or verbal abuse, children cannot thrive at school unless they unpack a few things and make sense of them. They need to understand that they are not stupid or dumb (because that is how most perceive themselves to be), which spirals into more long-term mental disorders.
As a victim of childhood trauma, I should’ve been the most creative and imaginative child, inventing fictional characters in fantasy land. Instead, I became a suppressed and uncreative child. Why?
When I was a child, I loved fantasy stories, but instead, what filled our shelves at home were medical encyclopedias, healthy eating books, and religious magazines. Endless daily bible readings and studying religious periodicals were a bit of a heavy read for a young child. I wanted to read what other children read and do what other kids did, but I knew we were not like the rest; we were being raised differently.
I was raised by a loving and caring but religious extremist mother who followed a toxic and oppressive religion (that is my opinion of the religion). My mother’s religion taught me that anything from the fantasy world would land me in a precarious position on God’s judgment day. Fairies, elves, Santa, and Easter bunnies are perceived as satanic and pagan and should not enter the house, nor should you desire to emulate them or read anything on those subjects. When you get told at a tender age that it is sinful to believe in these fictional characters and that God can read our thoughts, it’s hard for a child to free their imagination without fear of the consequences. My thoughts had nowhere to go, I couldn’t just leave them to roam around in my mind because they may have developed into sinful behaviors; maybe I would’ve started acting out fairies with my dolls, so I buried them in a place where I thought they were safe, my subconscious, therefore becoming a suppressed child that would not have the courage later in life to do what she wanted to do—create.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, my creative role model, my father, was an intelligent and highly creative but violent artist affected by schizophrenia and other mental disorders. He demanded sacrifice, obedience, excellence, perfection, and devotion even in our creative endeavors. Hence, creativity did not appeal to me–it was too risky to go down that path. Suppression was therefore my only and safest option; if I pushed down, I would stay safe. I only became highly creative in my adult life, after I managed to heal from trauma.
Art therapy differs from traditional psychology because it goes down deep and taps into the subconscious, where all the trauma is housed. So, when considering your options in helping anyone with trauma, make sure you combine different methods. Together, they work more effectively. Below are some types of therapies that can be combined with art therapy, but remember, children, respond best to art therapy. Making art is not art therapy, that is art as therapy. Art psychotherapy is a form of therapy that embraces a variety of theoretical frameworks that when used alone or in conjunction with other techniques, it delivers extraordinary results. Below are some different therapies you can combine with art therapy:
· Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
· Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
· Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
· Narrative exposure therapy (NET)
· Prolonged exposure therapy (PE)
· Trauma model therapy
· Play therapy
· Music therapy
· Surfing therapy