Leading art therapist researcher Linda Chapman, MA, ATR-BC shares a technique that she finds increasingly valuable in art therapy with children and teens with a history of developmental or complex trauma. It requires very little media, space, and can be worked on at the child’s pace of comfort.
Autobiographical Life Narrative
Creating an autobiographical life narrative is completed over a number of sessions, sometimes weeks or months. This requires a roll of paper 12″ x 15-20′ long, resembling a roll of paper towels.
I offer graphite and colored pencils, markers, pastels and paint, but the drawing can be done with any drawing media. I also have infant stickers depicting infant supplies, toys, and “It’s a Boy” and “It’s a Girl” stickers. I also have toy catalogues available.
I begin by asking the child if they know where they were born, such as in a hospital or at home, and if they know who was present. The child may or may not know this, but can find out. If they do know, I ask them to depict the hospital, those present, and anything else they know about that day. Then I ask if they heard any stories about themselves as a baby, and do they remember a favorite toy. They find images or draw depictions of what they recall as a young child. I then ask about day-care, pre-school and other early experiences to stimulate them thinking of their early years. The images will depict toys, clothes, and important people as well as negative experiences such as domestic violence. We continue the narrative until it is the present time, which may take many sessions.
As the child works on the visual narrative, it becomes a reference tool for accessing memories, emotions, and thoughts. The experience also is a vehicle for exploring losses as favorite toys or people and places are remembered. Another item that I notice appears is the many injustices suffered by children which are seemingly never forgotten. One of the most useful aspects of the narrative is to use it as a template for remembering when the child began hearing voices, or began cutting. The depiction of the stressor is often is visual form just before cutting or suicide attempts. This allows me to normalize the maladaptive coping as an attempt to control emotions. After doing so, one teen remarked, “This is the first time I have ever understood why I cut.”
I recommend you proceed slowly, and let the child know they can work on the narrative as much or as little as they like at each session. Often the age of the developmental arrest is when the child stops drawing or working on the narrative. With gentle encouragement and normalizing of wanting to avoid the painful memories, most children will complete the narrative, but not always.
More information about the technique can be found in her book, Neurobiologically Informed Trauma Therapy with Children and Adolescents: Understanding Mechanisms of Change, published January 2014. It comes in Hardcover and Kindle versions.