Gretchen’s Story

 

As I sit at the art table with children and their parents, they often ask how i came about this work. Initially the questions will center around art therapy; its role, purpose, and education. After those questions the parents often want to know my personal story. Why did I choose to work in this profession? One where the outcome can be heartbreaking.

The truth is, i did not initially want to work with children. I wanted to work with adults, to help them regain the joy of childhood. 20 years ago in undergrad as a anthropology/sociology student i took an expressive therapies class. While the music and the dance were not enjoyable to me, the art was. I realized i was using art as an emotional release for myself most of my life. I even chose not to take art classes because my creations were too close to my heart and my feelings.

After graduation i traveled the country with a friend and met a woman in California studying art therapy. As we lay in our tent on the side of the road talking about our futures i had an epiphany. I wanted to become an art therapist and work with adults who were HIV positive and/or suffering from AIDS. I had a purpose and a plan. I rounded up a few friends to move out to California so i could get residency and go back to school. Ah the best laid plans…

Ten years later I find myself as a single mother in Maryland with the chance to go back to school. As The George Washington University was right in D.C. and had the oldest Art Therapy program in the U.S., I knew the time was right. I had talked with Tracy at Georgetown to get a feel for the program and the profession and decided to take the plunge. I still wanted to work with adults, until my internships exposed me to the joys of working with children. By the time the Children’s clinic in Falls Church had an opening I had gotten my Masters in Art Therapy and my Graduate Counseling Licensure. I was ready for Tracy’s Kids. What i love best about this program is the whole family work I am able to do. Helping adults and children brings me joy at the end of each day.

A Bear & A Healing Garden

Over the past two years, the Tracy’s Kids art therapists in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders have collaborated with other art therapists at Children’s National Medical Center to create two large murals which now hang prominently in our hallways – bringing the children and teenagers who worked on the murals a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

The art therapists first pieced together blank canvases of various sizes and drew the basic outline of the mural image. The canvases were then taken apart again, so that patients and siblings all over the hospital were each given their own piece of the mural. Without knowing what the final image would be, children of all ages (and with all different kinds of diagnoses) painted, glued and collaged the canvases.

Collaborative Mural of A Healing Garden

Each canvas stands alone as a beautiful artwork, but once the individual pieces were put back together, the results were even more amazing. Our first mural depicts Dr. Bear, the mascot of Children’s National Medical Center, and the most recent mural shows our “Healing Garden.” Once each mural was displayed, patients and siblings marveled at how their small piece of artwork contributed to the larger mural. The murals created a great sense of community – even though many of the patient-artists had never met, they became more aware of other children who share their experience in the hospital by collaborating in this project.

The Tale of Two Bad Mice: Anger in Young Children

At one time or another, parents, teachers, and other caregivers encounter the wrath of the young children in their charge. Temper tantrums, testing limits, and refusing to cooperate are inevitable and developmentally appropriate as young children assert their independence. But little ones’ anger can test the limits of their grownups’ patience and equanimity. If it comes to a power struggle, I always bet on the kid to win. Kids are smaller and less powerful, so they have a lot more at stake, and they tend to keep on until the adult gives in or loses their cool.  

 Kids with cancer have a lot to be mad about. They have gotten a raw deal. They have to go through a lot of awful stuff for no discernible reason, and their parents and caregivers have to insist that they take medicines, get checkups and infusions, and keep on plugging away for a very long time. But kids tend to be amazingly resilient—they might be enraged and pouty and silly and relaxed all in the span of the same half-hour. Keeping up with all that requires a lot of emotional intelligence from grownups.

 

Stories from children’s literature can be a great resource in articulating the emotional life of children and helping both children and adults develop resilience and coping. One of my all-time favorite kids’ stories is “The Tale of Two Bad Mice,” by Beatrix Potter. Miss Potter is best known for “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” but the story of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, the mice who lived in the nursery, offers wonderful insights into what makes kids tick.

 

The two mice see that the nursery is empty, so they go exploring in the dollhouse. A beautiful feast is laid out upon the dining table—ham, fish, lobster, pudding, fruit—but they soon discover that it is all fake—made of plaster. Potter writes “there was no end to the rage and disappointment of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca.” It is important to note that they are not just angry, they are disappointed—they have been duped! Appearing foolish is especially difficult for young children to tolerate. They have limited knowledge, but they want to be competent, so it is terribly painful to be shown to be wrong!

The mice proceed to wreck the doll’s house, destroying everything in their path—but then Hunca Munca realizes that she would like to have some of the things they are destroying. They take a feather bed and a cradle, among other things, to outfit their mouse hole, as Hunca Munca is about to have babies herself! The dolls return, and the people with them to find the dolls’ house wrecked. The little girl stations a policeman doll outside the house to guard it, and the nanny sets a mouse-trap.

 

The mice are too clever for the trap, and they return—but they do not destroy things again. They find a sixpence under the rug and leave it in the dolls’ Christmas stocking to pay for what they have destroyed, and Hunca Munca comes early every morning to sweep the dolls’ house. The mice have gone from being angry and out of control to being responsible, cooperative citizens of the nursery–showing young children the pathway back from a scary, angry place to one of fairness and self-control.