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Foster Carers' TSD Standards covered:

Author Details

Rebecca Morse-Brown

Name: Rebecca Morse-Brown

Job Title: Art Psychotherapist

Specialist Therapy: Art Psychotherapy (Art Therapy)

Current place of work: Birmingham LAC CAMHS

Can you explain, in brief, what Art Therapy is and what sessions entail?

Art psychotherapy (or Art Therapy) enables children and young people to build a therapeutic relationship and to express and explore their thoughts, feelings and experiences through the use of art materials as well as through words. Art materials provided usually include paint, clay, junk -modelling, pens, sand trays, drawing, pastels, oil crayons, a range of collage materials and a large selection of papers. Sessions are held weekly and last for 50 minutes. They are usually non-directive, so the child or young person chooses how to use the both the art materials and the time within the session, and is also able to regulate the actual pace of therapy themselves.

Art–making provides the child with a visual language with which to express themselves. For those who struggle to articulate thoughts and feelings or who have experienced traumas which it feels almost impossible to find words for, this can be an invaluable opportunity to begin to express, reflect on and make sense of their experiences and the challenges they face.

What kind of changes to you aim to achieve with Art Therapy for adopted and fostered children?

The changes I would hope to see in fostered and adopted children very according to their past experiences, their current presentation and any particular concerns at the time of referral, and any expressed hopes for future change.

These may include therapeutic changes such as:

  • An increased self-esteem and self-confidence;
  • A stronger sense of self- identity, incorporating but not defined by the trauma of their past;
  • A greater ability to form and build trusting relationships;
  • A diminishing sense of shame;
  • An increased ability and confidence to find words to express difficult or painful thoughts and feelings;
  • An increased capacity to reflect on their life, their relationships, their hopes and their fears.

How does Art Therapy work for adopted and fostered children?

In my experience, art psychotherapy works well for adopted and fostered children for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the therapeutic relationship is of central significance and a key factor in bringing about change. We know that the attachment difficulties experienced by many looked after children means that forming trusting relationships with others can often be very hard. Art psychotherapy enables the relationship between child and therapist to be formed during the art-making activity, which in the early stages can often be fun, playful, relaxing and messy. The art-making enables the therapeutic relationship to be built around the creative activity. Art-making can act as a “bridge” between two individuals, creating both space and a connection between child and therapist. This can help reduce anxiety and enables the child or young person to pace the process of building the relationship with the therapist. Gradually, trust is formed, thoughts and feelings are shared and the ground is prepared for further work when the child is ready.

Secondly, it is often painfully difficult for looked after children to find words to express feelings such as grief, anger, loss, frustration and anxiety. It can also be difficult to describe their recollections of what has happened to them in the past, as memories are often jumbled and hard to make sense of. Art–making offers an opportunity to express their inner thoughts and feelings in a visual way that doesn’t rely on verbal language. Together, child and therapist can begin the tentative journey of finding words for the inexpressible and starting to make sense of what are often confused and complicated past experiences. The art object can often provide a “window into their world”, creating opportunities for conversations, shared understandings and the emergence of new perspectives.

As children find a way to express themselves within the safe context of therapy, feelings which are often overwhelming and communicated in other “challenging behaviours” find an outlet and there is hopefully less of a need to express them in ways which may cause them to get into trouble.

Thirdly, making art in art psychotherapy can offer a safe outlet for distressing and anxious emotions. The physical creative process itself can help discharge intense and difficult feelings, while the art object can express, hold and “contain” emotions in a way which enables the client to reflect on and find new ways of think about feelings that had previously been unacknowledged or difficult to talk about.

Who does Art Therapy? / What kind of training do Art Therapists have?

Art Psychotherapy must be carried out by qualified art psychotherapists who are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. They should also be members of the British Association of Art Therapists. The art psychotherapy training is currently a post-graduate Masters qualification comprising of a two year full-time course, including a significant number of hours of personal therapy.

Why are you passionate about Art Therapy for fostered and adopted children?

Lots of reasons! I love the fact that the child can discover their “voice” through the art work as they have the opportunity to create and communicate something of their inner world. I think this is especially important for children who struggle with words, and for those for whom some experiences have literally been “untellable”. The opportunity to witness this “voice” emerging and to journey with a child as they share something of their life is both a responsibility and a privilege.

The non-directive nature of the work feels really important, as children can control the pace and the content of the session. I really like the fact that art psychotherapy gives children the opportunity to choose what to talk about and what art work to make. In that sense they have significant control over their own therapeutic process and experience a significant degree of autonomy. For children and young people who may often have felt hugely out of control and powerless in the context of abusive past relationships, and/or been given too much control over their lives through lack of appropriate boundaries and neglectful parenting, relationships with current caregivers often continue to be defined by a powerful dynamic of control. There is a danger that these patterns of relating will be repeated unless they are sensitively challenged and new ways of relating are experienced and integrated.

I am also passionate about children having opportunities to engage in art and other creative activities outside the educational system. This feels especially important for looked after children who have often come from families where money was short and stress levels were high, who were given few opportunities for play, art-making and mess-making in their early years (thereby missing out on vital developmental opportunities) and whose lives have revolved around “screen-time” at the expense of nurturing, attentive and warm relationships.

Finally, I think that art psychotherapy can be fun and engaging as well as challenging and provocative, relaxing and confidence-building, yet stimulating and thought-provoking. It is an opportunity for therapist and child to journey into the unknown, to be creative, share thoughts and responses, and search together for new understandings and possibilities for change.

PAFCA's Art Therapy Top 5 Tips

Use children’s art work from home and school as a springboard to conversation – as well as being complimentary, ask questions and be curious and “wonder” out loud. Is their art is an expression of themselves, however small? In this way interest in children’s art work conveys an interest in them as a whole.

Make time to be creative together with the child in your care – it is a wonderful way have fun together and to build your relationship – paint each others nails, paint with water and draw with chalks on the patio, play Pictionary, finger paint together, create a sand tray and make a beach scene or a prehistoric scene with plasticine dinosaurs, make cards for family members, use bath crayons, make scrapbooks of holidays and fun times together that you can look back on, remember and laugh. Collect natural materials together from the outdoors and come home and make a picture, sculpture or sloppy, messy “silly soup”.

Think about children’s body language and behaviour as a communication of their feelings and help them with the crucial task of finding words for those feelings by noticing and naming them.

Consider your child’s natural mode of communication – it might be spoken words but it could be art, drama, dance, music or written words. Provide lots of opportunities for them to develop this skill and express themselves.

Finally, don’t let fear of making a mess at home stop you having fun together – it can always be tidied up – and buy a waterproof mat if necessary!

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