By Marie Boles and Jennifer Yingling
Violence is a scary word for children Violence is even more frightening when it is witnessed. Both mothers and children engrossed in an environment polluted by domestic violence can lead to detrimental physical and emotional scars. The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (2013) has adopted a therapeutic method of responding to mothers and children who come from a home of domestic violence, whether it be a civilian or military family. This method is called, “Write It Out: Using Words and Art to Strengthen and Heal Family Bonds.” The bond between mothers and children are strengthened through creating artistic masterpieces. They believe that writing and drawing can provide an outlet for families to explore their thoughts and feelings in relation to the trauma that each has experienced.
Verbalizing thoughts and emotions can be challenging for children and parents. “Children may find expressive projects a safe time to explore feelings for their other parent or family members” . Exposing mothers and children to this medium can create a safe space for both of them to collaborate together. This collaboration may lead to opening up to one another in a comfortable environment where each mother and child can listen to the thoughts being expressed from each other. This creative delivery can be valuable to service professionals as they work with mothers and children who were exposed to domestic violence. Oftentimes, before children are comfortable opening up, getting their mind on another task can be a technique to lead them into the comforting stage of expression. The questions that service professionals should consider while working with this demographic is, how can we make this family most comfortable? After learning about the mother and child’s interest, which activity would be most beneficial to them? When and if this creative expression brings out strong emotions among either/both mother and child, how can I successfully use this medium to respond to their narrative that they are essentially portraying through their art?
Violence in the home often leads to a fractured relationship between a mother and her children. This occurs for a myriad of reasons, including fracturing from coping mechanisms as a means of survival opposed to a means of healing. The Joyful Heart Foundation identifies some these copings methods as “siding with the violent parent, spacing and numbing out of the moment, and creating rituals for safety” . “Experts have concluded that the most important protective resource to enable a child to cope with exposure to violence is a strong relationship with a competent, caring, positive adult, most often a parent” . The various art therapy activities provided by the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence (2013) is a resource that helps strengthen the relationship between mothers and her children. The service professionals bringing forth the activities help determine the type of art technique used based on the clients’ needs and what each client is comfortable with. Storytelling and creating a piece of art based on emotions brought out of the story may work for one child. Another child may benefit from writing out those emotions in a journal. The beneficial aspect of this type of therapy is how versatile the activities are. As service professionals and advocates for these mothers and her children, we must be flexible with the art activities and respect the needs and concerns of the families.
The outstanding question that remains is how do we use this therapy within our practice and struggling families? The first thing to consider is to understand the client’s unique circumstances to determine the best art technique to use. It is imperative to keep in mind that engaging in certain activities can elicit uncomfortable feelings and memories from the mothers and children. Always make the families aware of the fact that they may discontinue the art therapy at any time they wish .
There are other programs within the United States, as well programs in other countries, which provide art therapy for mothers and children recovering from domestic violence. In Toronto, Canada a program geared towards parenting after abuse is titled YWCA Toronto. England offers the D.A.R.T. (Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together) programs for sessions of support for mothers and children. In Marietta, Georgia there is the Art it Out Therapy Center which provides services to individuals of any age.
 Hart, S., Jones, A., Maynard, J., Scanlon, A., Torchia, A., Williams, S., & Wilson, P. (2013). Write it out: using words and art to strengthen and heal family bonds. Retrieved from http://promising.futureswithoutviolence.org/files/2014/01/Write-It-Out-Using-Words-and-Art-to-strengthen-and-heal-family-bonds.pdf
 Groves, B.M., & Zuckerman, B. (1997). Interventions with parents and caregivers of children who are exposed to violence. In J. Osofsky (Eds.), Children in a violent society (pp. 183-201). New York: Guilford Press.
This post was written by Marie Boles and Jennifer Yingling, guest bloggers for the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Marie and Jennifer are masters-level marriage and family therapist (MFT) in training enrolled in the Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Valdosta State University. They also work as MFT interns at VSU’s FamilyWorks Clinic, a community-based family therapy clinic. You may find more about the authors, here. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD team on our website, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.