Dream Traps

Over the course of treatment some of our young patients have nightmares, which are often related to their treatment experiences. One little girl came into the clinic upset about a nightmare she had had the night before. During her medical exam she told her parents and the treatment team about her nightmare and how it continued to scare her. As art therapists often do with kids who have nightmares, she was encouraged her to draw the dream. Once she drew it we discussed ways that we could get rid of the dream picture (by throwing it out, crumpling it into a ball, etc). This allows the child to externalize their experience and literally get rid of a scary thing.

However, once the patient had drawn the nightmare she decided that instead of throwing it away a better way to deal with it was to trap it in a dream trap. Using colored paper and LOTS of tape, we assembled an elaborately constructed trap. The trap was so complex in design that once it was complete the little girl, looking triumphant, confidently said, “no bad dream is getting out of here!”

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Several weeks later this patient returned to the clinic in need of a new dream trap because the one she made last time “was completely full”. So we got to work on a new, even more elaborate and colorful dream trap. This little girl even inspired other patients at the art table to create their own dream traps as well.

Sticky Art

Recently, a little girl started to come to our clinic for treatment. Although she is only 3 years old she is very brave when it comes to her medical procedures. The only thing that bothers her is the medical tape, which irritates the skin around her port (a tube for infusing medicine and drawing blood). Her fear of the sticky tape causes her a lot of distress and her parents as well as the medical team have been working hard each visit to reassure her that the tape is not going to hurt her.  Today we had an opportunity to make art about this fear when she exclaimed, “I want to make sticky art”!

With an array of colorful tape, stickers, glue dots and band-aids at hand this little girl set to work creating a flower garden. As she worked, the sticky materials stuck to her fingers and she talked about what it felt like to remove something that was stuck to her. With a sense of achievement, she peeled the band-aids off her fingers and stuck them to the paper.  

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Using sticky art materials and medical supplies to create her flower garden helped this little girl express her fear about the tape around her port.  Being in control of how much tape and how many band-aids she placed on her paper allowed for her to gain power over something scary. This is a good example of how art therapy can help address the fears that can come from some of the medical procedures our kids have to endure and how the art making process can help to empower them.

Watch Out for the T-Rex!!!

Today one of our young patients came in with a friend and the two of them spent the morning using the relaxation mats in our clinic to build an elaborate house complete with passageways, doors and a roof. For the patient, having his own space in the house that had a roof over it was particularly important. When the roof was on his house he didn’t want anyone to be able to see him. His mom and I worked to fulfill his need only to find moments later a “strong wind” had come through and knocked the house down! The strong wind quickly developed into a T-Rex that was determined to destroy everything in its path. The two kids giggled and jumped up and down in delight as they tumbled over the large mats. Once the T-Rex was gone we worked to rebuild the house until… (you guessed it!) another T-Rex came along to knock the whole thing down again!

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The theme of creation and destruction is one that we sometimes see with kids. As adults, we usually view creation as a linear process- we come up with an idea, work to create it and hope that in the process and after it is completed that it doesn’t fall apart. For some kids however, the creation process can be less linear and more circular with equal joy and importance on the creation as well as the destruction of the artwork. At times destroying something can be far more therapeutic than making it!

In this patient’s case, the creation of a place where he could hide and not be seen by anyone made him feel safe and protected, while the later destruction of the house allowed him to feel more in control and powerful. The process seemed to validate both of these feelings and help relieve his anxiety about the medical care he received today.

Managing Anxiety

When bad things happen, people often experience anxiety. Anxiety is about protecting yourself from something bad that could happen, but it might not.

When kids and families come to the hospital, a very bad thing has already happened, but there is lots we can do to help. Even when they’re getting better, a serious illness can leave people feeling anxious, especially parents and siblings. Even when the bad things happen someplace else, we may still feel on edge. Since we can’t make every possible bad thing go away, it is important to have some tools to manage anxiety.

Working creatively is a great way to cope. When you are immersed in the creative process, your attention is focused on the present moment–it’s what people call the creative flow.  If you get your best ideas in the shower or at the gym or while driving your car, you have experienced “flow.”  Being in the flow lets you take a little vacation from your worries–you feel relaxed, refreshed, more “normal” and able to cope.

Drawing, coloring, working with play-doh or clay, knitting, scrapbooking, playing a musical instrument, gardening , walking, vacuuming–any activity that gets your hands busy and your mind relaxed can help you feel more calm. Even imagining a beautiful, safe, comfortable place can help your mind and body relax. In these anxious days, it is important to connect with the peace and strength within.

The photo below is one of my favorite images of a beautiful, safe, relaxing place. It’s a spot in the mountains full of bebalm and butterflies.  I have also included a drawing I made about that place. Maybe you will find that place relaxing too–but if not, you can probably find another picture that works for you.

Turk's Cap Lilies, Beebalm and Butterflies

Turk’s Cap Lilies, Beebalm and Butterflies

Butterfly and Beebalm

Butterfly and Beebalm

Bravery

Many of the kids and their families that come to our clinic are very brave. You have to be to undergo treatment or watch someone you love undergo it. Many of our kids pride themselves for having courage in the face of needles and procedures. “You were really brave” can be the biggest compliment for a child after a scary procedure is finished.  

Acknowledging the bravery of a child also acknowledges that what they just did was scary and they had good reason to feel scared.  At times, it is tempting to downplay scary things to make kids feel less anxious.  However, acknowledging the child’s feelings allows for the child to be heard and find the courage needed to get through it.

Bravery also has many faces in our clinic- maybe it involves squeezing a stuffed animal, yelling, or distracting oneself with pictures of favorite things.  Sometimes it involves imagining a pleasant place.

Watercolor of a relaxing place

Watercolor of a relaxing place

Often, at the art therapy table, before a procedure a child will talk about the procedure, express fears, make art about something he or she likes or express some of the inner turmoil with splatters of paint across a canvas. As art therapists we facilitate this range of expressions- acknowledging worries, creating an art space to contain anxiety, helping to create a comforting place using art materials. All of these things help kids develop coping skills to help them through treatment as well as life’s future challenges.