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.

Care for the Caregiver

 

All staff members in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders work very closely with families and patients, some of whom we have known for months or even years.  Working alongside these families, staff members naturally witness and experience a large range of emotions.  As a traditional workday on the unit doesn’t always allow for very much downtime, theTracy’s Kids art therapists host regular Care for the Caregiver sessions for staff members in the art therapy room. 

Care for the Caregiver sessions allow a time and space for any and all staff on the Hematology/Oncology unit to take time out of a busy day for themselves.  During this time, staff members are encouraged to draw support from one another and to use the art materials provided to facilitate the process of relaxation and reflection.  Mandalas, or circle drawings, are a very popular choice amongst staff – the containing and centering qualities of the circular form have long been used in cultures around the world. During a sometimes hectic workday, the art making creates an opportunity for self care that enables staff members to continue to provide first class care for patients and families.

Clinic Kaleidoscope

 

Sometimes patients must come to get treatment every day, often for hours, for weeks on end. When that is the case it can tax the creativity of both the patient and the art therapist. I try to keep acquiring new ideas and new skills through various blogs, classes, and books. However, sometimes the old ideas, ones long forgotten, can spur on a new creative endeavor.

About 20 years ago I worked in my Aunt’s stained glass studio where we had two kaleidoscope kits. They were tedious to assemble and difficult to sell. The other day the idea of a kaleidoscope came back when a teenage patient, who had been at the clinic for weeks, was looking for something new to do.

 We managed to make this one using a paper towel roll, small mosaic mirror tiles taped together, medical tape, and parts of a few urine specimen containers. As my memories of how the kaleidoscope was assembled came flooding back, our design gradually took form.

 When we completed one and displayed it in the art room, many other kids wanted to make one too! As we began to run out of the supplies we originally used, the children found ways to alter the first design and create other masterpieces with the materials on hand.

 

 

I Can’t Tell You But I’ll Show You….

Some children in treatment for cancer really struggle with the all the demands of  treatment, which include weekly finger pokes or a port access, shots and examinations by the doctor, and much more. Many of them cry and scream and let the treatment team know they are mad and don’t like what is happening.

Then there are kids who are incredibly compliant, say little about the treatment process and seem to make the best of a very difficult situation. These kids intrigue me. I always wonder about their experience and what they are not saying out loud. And then they begin to create and many of these quieter children and teens say a great deal about what they’re feeling through the imagery.

These two pictures are by a 9 year old boy who has said very little about his experience with cancer and the intensive treatment. His art work however, is very expressive and has become the vehicle through which he expresses many of the things that he doesn’t say out loud. It seems to be easier for him to express himself through the art; a seemingly natural way for him to convey his feelings about his experiences. When you look closely you begin to understand….

 

“I Don’t Know What I am Making, But I Like It!”

As an art therapist, I often hear people say “I am not creative” or “I am not good at art”. These statements are not surprising as art is often judged by the final product and many of us feel like we fall short when it comes to creating something that can be called art.  While product- focused art making can be valuable, the desire to create a “good” work of art can also get in the way of experiencing the creative process. Creativity can be stifled by focusing on what the artwork looks like rather than what it feels like to create.

One way to focus directly on the process of creating art is through the intuitive painting process, which was originally developed by Michele Cassou.  We incorporated this process into our summer workshops by inviting the kids to “just paint” until they felt the picture was complete. We worked in an outdoor space at the hospital, turning a brick wall and a picnic bench into our own artist’s studio. Paper was taped to the wall and cups were filled with colorful paints. When one painting was finished a new paper was offered. The kids ran back and forth from the table of paints to the paper with dripping brushes in hand. Some kids splatter painted, some created meditative circular forms, while others painted people and animals. There were even a few participants that got so much paint on themselves that they became the artwork! As the kids painted they laughed and asked questions. Many commented on their own process saying, “I don’t know what I am making, but I like it!”

Stepping into a process in which the focus was on how something was created rather than what was created allowed the kids to let go. They enjoyed the messiness of the paint, explored how colors dripped down the canvas and pondered the wonderful and unexpected images that emerged onto the paper.

Meet the Puppets

Making Masks

Children, teens and young adults in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at CNMC have made hundreds of masks over the course of this summer. Creating masks is an incredibly popular project for everyone who comes to the art therapy room – parents and staff included! The initially blank masks serve as an amazingly poignant starting point for our patients and their families to express and examine emotions and experiences throughout the course of diagnosis and treatment for cancer and blood disorders.

Patients receiving treatment for Sickle Cell Disease made masks for a hospital wide exhibit in recognition of World Sickle Cell Day – a day dedicated to promoting a better understanding of Sickle Cell Disease and how it can impact children, adults and families around the world.  Some of the masks created by our patients now displayed prominently at Children’sNationalMedicalCenter. Hundreds of people pass by the bright and colorful exhibit every single day. The young artists’ masks are not only an attractive addition to the hospital but also a wonderful way to bring more attention to the challenges faced by children with this diagnosis.

Letting the Art Shine In

The Tracy’s Kids program at Inova Life with Cancer (LWC) is in Fairfax, VA and looks a little different than the other Tracy’s Kids programs. The outpatient clinic where patients come weekly for treatment is separate from Inova’s Hospital for Children at Fairfax Hospital, where children and teens are admitted when hospitalization is necessary. What is similar is that patients have access to art therapy in the outpatient clinic and in the hospital. However, there is another facet to this program that I also find very rewarding, which are the programs offered to families at the Life with Cancer Family Center where anyone impacted by cancer can access services. Through a grant from Tracy’s Kids, individual and group art therapy support is available to any child or teen impacted by cancer, whether they are in treatment or have a family member with cancer.

When patients and families create art at the clinic they often want to hang it on the walls of the art room. Everyone who comes there for the first time is impacted by the breadth and power of this work. It seemed important to share the art with many other people who are touched by cancer and would truly appreciate it. With the permission of the patients, siblings and parents this amazing art work was displayed in an art show at the LWC Family Center during July and August. This show was moving and powerful. The art contained so much color, energy and expression. It touched the hearts of all those who saw it, which I was told over and over again. Creating art is a healing process and it seems it also has a healing quality when it is viewed. Many thanks to all the kids, teens and parents that participated in this Tracy’s Kids program and Let Their Art Shine In at the LWC Family Center!

Labor Day

The post on Felted Scarves that appeared on Friday was supposed to be my Labor Day reflection (rookie blogger). It is an example of how the Tracy’s Kids art therapists support their colleagues at the hospitals. The health professionals we work with  have very specialized knowledge and skill, and they are incredibly focused and productive. Giving them the opportunity to exercise their creative muscles for a little while can be a great stress-buster. So, check out my post on Felted Scarves, and have a happy Labor Day!

The first step of the process–laying out the roving.

Felted Scarves

One afternoon the clinic emptied out a little early, so we invited the doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplain to an impromptu felting workshop. We had been experimenting with felting techniques, and found the process to be fun and relaxing and the results dependably good, even for first-time felters. For the oncology clinic staff, the chance to engage in a little creative play can be a great stress-buster.

 We took over the art tables and showed everyone how to lay out small strands of roving in several layers and felt them using hot, soapy water and friction to create beautiful scarves. It was pretty amazing to see the variety of designs, and how individual everyone’s piece was. We took a “class photo” of our finished scarves–we think they’re inspirational!

You can learn a lot about felting on the internet. We have found that websites that sell felting supplies (Outback Fibers and Dharma Trading often have excellent tutorials on their sites. Happy Felting!