Ravenna – For a child, being able to draw may be the only way of telling adults about a terrible, frightening or violent experience. Two young area children who are working through trauma have been drawing for NiCole Bartlett, a therapist at Children’s Advantage in Ravenna.
One of the simple drawings shows a family room with a mother and beloved pet. The other is Bartlett’s office with a poster that reads “Color Outside the Lines.” These are the children’s safe places from bad dreams, anger and fear.
Bartlett and fellow staff members at Children’s Advantage, a mental health center treating children, teens and families, trained for a week with national experts this past summer to further develop the agency’s services for Trauma Informed Care. TIC is a general term for trauma services including the use of sensory tools such as drawing and music to support children and teens as they talk about how trauma has affected them. The focus is not on the behavior but what caused the behavior. TIC further guides the therapist in ways to separate the child or teen from the traumatic experience and allow him or her to heal.
The trauma may be abuse experienced by the child or teen; witnessing family violence; homelessness; illness; separation from family; or being involved in a horrific incident such as a fire or accident.
“The art shows me what it is like for this child. It important to understand what has happened to him or her. We become a witness to the trauma which is very important to the kids. They welcome it,” said Bartlett.
The Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County provided funding for the training which included staff from the Children’s Advocacy Center of Portage County located at Robinson Memorial Hospital. The center works with children, teens and their families when abuse has been reported, reducing the number of interviews and supporting families with education and referrals.
Children’s Advantage Clinical Director Mary McCracken said the agency is seeing numerous youngsters whose symptoms mirror how adults react when they experience or witness violence or terror. CA staff is specifically using Structured Sensory Intervention for Traumatized Children, Adolescents and Parents (SITCAP) therapy and seeing progress with youngsters and families.
“My child was having great difficulty with bad dreams and seeing creepy shadows. The process with the art and talking helped her. She no longer dreams like she did and she feels safe. In my opinion, it is very important to heal from trauma so you move forward in life,” said one of the parents. The names of the families interviewed were not used to maintain confidentiality.
Jean West, a SITCAP trainer and school social worker from Missouri who led part of the training in Ravenna, explained that children who have experienced trauma will have behavior problems, physical problems such as stomach and headaches, depression, anxiety and often lack the ability to trust adults. They carry shame and often blame themselves. They are more likely to run away and become involved with the juvenile justice system.
“Safety and familiarity are scary. Chaos becomes normal,” she said describing long-term trauma victims.
With the activity of drawing or another form of expression, the young person can identify the trauma even if he or she cannot give it a name. With the help of a therapist, the feelings and behaviors are named, talked about and “contained ” or understood, an important way allowing the child to re-establish order and control.
SITCAP therapy is based on brain and physiological research with youth. The workshop included presentations by Dr. William Steele, founder of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children™ who developed the therapy method. His work treating children with trauma started in 1990 before children were included in the diagnostic category of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Part of the training for the local workshop, SITCAP is used in thousands of schools and agencies across the country and undergoes continuous field testing and rigorous evidence-based research.
Steele explained that prolonged exposure to stress from trauma causes changes to the brain that reduce a young person’s ability to verbalize emotions. His method gives therapists the tools to help youngsters de-stress with drawing, relaxation, deep breathing, exercise, talking and music.
CA case manager Traci Gibbons said a breakthrough for one of her teen clients came when the teen brought her a cd with music she had copied. Gibbons said the music described how the young person felt; giving Gibbons the key to unlock the trauma and start the healing process.
Working with parents is also a large part of the method, helping them understand what their child has experienced, Steele told workshop participants.
“I was shocked to learn that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects children and could cause behavior change. We are now aware of the cause of our child’s behavior and how to help him make positive changes. He began to talk about his feelings with the therapist and he felt safe again,” said a parent of the second family interviewed.
Children’s Advantage receives funding from the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County to provide mental health services to children, teens and families who are Portage County residents.