Monthly Archives: November 2012

Stick Boy: Our First Attempt at Art Therapy

Jamie was waiting for me in the kitchen when I got home.

‘I’ve missed you so much Mum.’

He held out his arms and there were tears in his eyes.

‘Is everything alright?’

‘I’ve had another angry.  Dad had to hold me.’

Rob appeared looking shell-shocked.  He reassured me that the weekend without me had been fine apart from the last hour.  As is so often the case the angries had centred on homework.

Refreshed and reinvigorated from an utterly lovely weekend spent with a friend, indulging in music, food and conversation I was able to take the long view.  I thought back to the day last week that I spent listening to Dr Margot Sunderland talking about art, storytelling and play as a means of helping children to process past trauma.  That evening I suggested to Jamie that we do some drawing together and that perhaps that might help to soothe away some of the angries.

‘I’m getting bigger and stronger,’ he said.

‘I wonder what the angries might look like when you are a big man?’ I ventured.

‘I’ll be fine by then,’ he mumbled unconvincingly.

He might be right, but I wouldn’t like to bet on it and I well remember Margot talking about unlaid ghosts and unprocessed trauma.  So we sat in bed together with a pad of paper and two bic biros.

‘How does the world feel to you when you are angry?’ I tried in a rather amateurish way.

The bic biro sped around.  A little stick boy appeared in the middle of the page with an upside down smile and dishevelled hair.  The right hand side was labelled ‘bad side’ and contained a host of figures holding pistols.  Bullets rained down on to the little stick boy. The figures were smiling, some were weighed down with devil horns.

‘It must feel lonely and scary to be the stick boy,’ I try.

‘That stick boy is me.’

A good side was added to the left hand side of the page.  It was empty apart from a well-formed picture of me with a big smile and wonder woman hair.  Between the stick boy and the good side appeared a deep and wide river.

‘There’s a 99% chance I’m going to go over to the bad side and a 1% chance I’m going over to the good side.’

It looked pretty hopeless. Then he drew an electric car, a new invention, which can cross rivers, but only if the percentages are more favourable.

‘I wonder how we can improve the chances that the stick boy can cross the river?’

He thought for a while and then wrote ‘Calm’ followed by the numbers 1 to 6.

‘We have to think of six things to bring calm.’

With each calm point he wrote down, the percentages were adjusted; first to 90% and 10% and then to a more encouraging 75% and 25%.  He wrote things like ‘listening to music’ and then ‘playing Lego together’.

‘It has to be together or it won’t work.’

He ended the list with ‘drawing’.  The percentages adjusted to 0% in favour of the bad side and 100% in favour of the good side.  This unlocked the magic car, which came across the river and brought the little stick boy to his mum on the good side.  With a final stroke of the pen, a big smile came across stick boys face.

The Power of Play

A few weeks ago my adopted son Jamie, now aged 12, asked for a Playmobil fire engine for Christmas. The recommended age range for the fire engine is 4 – 8.  Despite knowing intellectually that his emergency service-based play is a way of ‘playing out’ his trauma, I’m ashamed to admit that I tried to put him off.  I was feeling worn down and frustrated by the endless toddler anger, baby talk and lower brain thinking and I’d mistakenly thought I could ‘grow him up’ with some old-fashioned ‘pull yourself together’ type parenting.  The following day he’d packed away all his Playmobil toys and demanded that I put them in the loft.

Fast forward a week and I was sat in a vast hall listening to Dr Margot Sunderland explaining the importance of therapeutic play and storytelling in helping abused and neglected children process their trauma.  The bag of tangled Playmobil emergency vehicles in the loft played heavy on my mind. Someone is trying to tell me something, I thought and tried to forgive myself for occasionally wanting life to be different.

‘The traumatic past won’t go into the past until it is remembered in the present’ said Dr Sunderland and ‘talking about the trauma is not like opening a can of worms because the worms are spilling out every which way anyway.’  I can attest to that.  Only the worms are more like vipers.

She talked about the power of play, storytelling, music and art in helping traumatised children to process their trauma in the upper, thinking parts of their brains and how it can be used to demonstrate that we, the trusted adults in their lives empathise with and soothe their fears, their grief and their loneliness.  As Dr Dan Hughes so wisely said ‘children who feel angry have to be helped to feel sad.’

This weekend my two children asked me to buy bandages as they wanted to play ‘vets’.  They spent the most part of two days asking to have knees and arms bandaged and taking care of animals in their clinic.  It was all about nurturing.  So often my children are trying to show me what they need and I need to have the humility to listen to them.

So now I have some work to do.  I’m reading Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children by Dr Margot Sunderland and looking through some of the art therapy materials she has produced.  I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to approach it yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

My Michael Douglas in Falling Down moment

‘Have a lovely day.  Mum loves you,’ I say kissing him on the pen mark on his cheek, which he had refused to wash off during the bath he’d refused to have the evening before.

‘Whatever,’ he replies, shrinking from my touch.

I had woken up promising myself I would be oh so positive this morning and would put aside the events of the previous evening.  I had opened my daughter’s bedroom door to wake her up and been faced with a blackened, split banana on the carpet.

‘Jamie put that there,’ she said, ‘to get me into trouble.’

That’s the sort of thing which happens in our house.

At breakfast Jamie and Rose had competitively jousted about whose school served the ‘best’ school dinners.

‘We get fizzy juice,’ said Jamie.

‘Well we get Slush Puppy.’


‘We do,’ she stated, shooting Jamie a certain look which we call ‘the eyebrows’.

‘MUM, Rose just gave me the eyebrows.’

‘Just ignore it,’ I’d offered helplessly, my optimism diminishing.

‘And why does SHE get to choose tea just cos SHE has friends coming over and I never get to choose and I want fish and chips for tea on Saturday and I’d better get them or …….’

‘Ten pounds is missing from my wallet,’ said Rob, appearing from the bathroom.

We’d all eyed each other suspiciously.

‘I wonder how that could have happened,’ I had trotted out from a text-book when what I’d really wanted to say was ‘RIGHT EMPTY OUT YOUR POCKETS NOW!’.

I’d trudged upstairs to retrieve five one pound coins from my bedside table, which I had kept there for dinner money purposes.  There were only three there.  Jamie had then quickly and suspiciously offered to fill the dinner money hole with his own pocket-money.  Plans of sock drawer searches and honey traps had flooded into my mind.  Sensing my panic over the time and my anger over the money, Jamie had then refused to put on his shoes.  We were precariously close to missing the school bus.

The ‘whatever’ stings me more than the previous evenings ‘I hate you’ but not as much as the ‘I’m going to kick you and watch you die’ of the week before.’

With children delivered to school bus stops, I laboriously gather up shopping bags and fester in a washy silence.  When I arrive at Morrisons feeling bleak and angry I open my purse to find it has been cleared of change.  I stand in a long, slow queue to buy a newspaper with a ten pound note so I can get a one pound coin with which to release a trolley which will not steer.  I seethe with irritation.

Everything in Morrisons annoys me.  The rolls of plastic bags are not kept by the loose vegetables where they are needed, but next to the already bagged bananas where they are not.  A lady stops, mid-aisle to check her list at length, oblivious to me raging behind her.  I wait patiently, then ask her politely to please move.  An icy stare.

‘Don’t take me on today,’ I think.

I swing past the magazines looking for some light relief.  ‘My secret pain’ says the well-known and wealthy presenter and ‘why I’m so unhappy with my body’ says a super-fit, gorgeous athlete.  A loud, mocking, scoffing laugh sets itself free.  People look at me.  In expressing myself, to myself in a public place. I have crossed a line.  Perhaps I am crazy. Or drunk.  I might sweep the contents of the magazine shelf on to the floor and stamp on the fat celebrities and the thin celebrities and the suspected boob jobs and the fake tans.  I might abandon my trolley and stride off into the distance.  I am like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, the monster in me finally breaking free, bulked up by the sudden release of bottled-up frustrations.  I could cause mayhem.

Instead I dutifully stand in line and pay for my shopping.  I come home, eat a large bag of chocolate buttons and dance madly and alone in the kitchen.