Imagine this. You have had a number of tests. You’ve been poked and prodded. Then you are told you have cancer.
What’s cancer, you ask? You don’t know because are only six years old.
This is just one of many scenarios that play out at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. From accidents to illness, children face the unimaginable; often not even understanding why they are in the hospital in the first place, let alone what procedures they will undergo or how their life will change. It’s terrifying for the kids, as well as the adults in their lives. They feel as if they have no control.
Enter the UC Davis Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy team. These professionals work tirelessly to help children and adolescents better cope with a physical illness or disability, while educating and supporting their caretakers and siblings at the same time. Many approaches can help facilitate this, including art.
Why art therapy?
Art therapy is founded on the belief that self-expression through artistic creation has therapeutic value for those who are healing, giving individuals a better understanding of themselves or their circumstances. When it comes to kids, it’s even more important.
“Children need to have a non-verbal way to express themselves,” said Katie Lorain, art therapist at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “It enables them to explore their emotions without having to talk. As a result, they visually share what they are going through and can connect with others through their artwork.”
While a child is working on an art project, art therapists often ask questions about the thoughts or memories the child had while working on that project. Through art therapy assessment, the symbols and metaphors often found in children’s artwork can reveal issues. This helps the care team to better understand the child, giving insight on how to best help each individual navigate the hospital experience.
From drawing, painting and collage, to sculpting and beading, children have a number of different avenues to share their feelings and thoughts.
“I often let the kids determine the activity. It varies based on who is there that day and what they are going through at that moment,” said Lorain. “Some days we do kinesthetic and tactile projects, for patients who may need to release cathartic energy, and other days, the activity might be more introspective, in order to promote relaxation and insight.”
In one exercise, children were asked to draw or model themselves as a superhero. They were asked what powers they would have; who their arch-villain would be; what their costume would look like. This is how one child answered:
Character name: “Super Justin”
Special powers: The power to control fire, fly and shoot “electricity” from his hands
Costume: Blue pants, black shoes, orange shirt and the quintessential red cape
Arch-villain: A very large alien from outer space
In the drawing, you can see a circular orange shape next to “Super Justin.” Justin told Katie this was an actual orange. Apparently, even superheroes need to eat their fruits and veggies!
“It reframes their role,” said Lorain. “They are not just a patient. They are not just sick or hurt. They are superheroes. They are artists.”
The therapeutic process is not about the artistic value of the work, but rather about finding associations between the creative choices made and the stories the art reveals. From bedside art therapy sessions, daily groups, parent support sessions and even young adult bereavement classes, art therapy enables patients and their families to build emotional resilience and feel some degree of control and ownership.
“It is amazing to witness when the kids are proud of what they’ve chosen to create,” said Lorain. “Art allows them to find their voice.”