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Treating trauma through the power of the arts

How Chroma therapists are engaging children to understand and manage the impact and symptoms of trauma

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Through the use of music, drama and art therapy, therapists at Chroma are helping children, adults and families to understand and manage the symptoms of trauma, to enable them to make significant progress in their lives. 

Here, NR Times learns how Chroma engages children in its therapy, and how it is now equipping others to make such life-changing difference by rolling out its CPD-accredited training programme

 

The power of the arts in delivering therapeutic outcomes for children living and dealing with trauma cannot be underestimated. Trauma can be caused by a brain injury, a difficult family situation, an illness or because parents have relocated for work.

Through engaging young people in the suite of arts therapies – music, art and drama – its life-changing results show its benefits in treating the impact of trauma in ways statistics cannot always properly quantify. Case managers, social workers and parents are kept closely up to date about progress in sessions, supported by a range of data and outcomes from assessment tools that Chroma uses.

For creative arts therapist Rachel Swanick, she confesses to having a “bucket full” of anecdotal examples of how traumatised children have responded positively to arts therapy. 

“There’s one boy I’m working with at the moment, I’m in my third year with him. It took 18 months for him to even look at me and play with me. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d given up before that,” says Rachel, a senior clinical therapist with Chroma.

“And then it took another year for him to start drawing houses and to put my house next to his. And only in the past few weeks at school, three years on, has he started talking about feeling sad, feeling happy, that he wants to make friends, that he wants to play football with somebody. His language has come on so well. 

“While I’m not saying that’s completely down to this creative arts therapy, there must be something about that consistency of care, where he can start to express himself, as well as his own development and feeling safe.”

The power to engage young people – as well as adults – in arts-led trauma therapy runs throughout Chroma, whose approach is now being rolled out through The CPD Service’s CPD-accreditation scheme, extending the positive impact of its therapies even further. 

The suite of training is now in its second successful year and while we are not tackling the root causes of trauma – we are helping professionals to think about how trauma is impacting children and their families, and how they can support the children in a trauma-informed way.

“We can quickly put something together and research it so we can adapt to our client’s needs very quickly – we are incorporating diversity into the CPD programme, which isn’t just about race, gender or age, we cover the whole spectrum – disability, religion, socio-economic aspiration, education,” says Rachel.

“We work with all types of therapists, social workers, educators and anyone who works in a school. We are seeing a really big response.”

The training covers the core principles of how Chroma’s national wide team of arts therapists engage children impacted by trauma, with Rachel identifying a four-step model:

  1. Creating safety – “you want to help the child to feel safe and calm, so they can trust you. We want to stop the ‘fight or flight’ approach so they know you are there for them. That is also achieved through consistent attendance over a period of time”
  2. Regulation – “we’ll help the child to become aware of their emotions, to be aware of the bodily sensations that are coming up, and find the language to express that. We are looking to help them one day to think ‘I’m feeling really bad right now, but I know I need to do this and a positive outcome will happen”
  3. Connection – “when you’ve helped the child to trust you and feel safe, you can make a connection with them. It can be playing with them in a way they enjoy, sitting next to them, whatever it might be – but you can’t get to this point until you’ve done the previous two”
  4. Consistency – “you need to keep going with the therapeutic plan for a good length of time, at least six weeks to see if there is any change; there might not be, and then you can evaluate and change it, but eve-rybody needs to be working on that consistently”.

While trauma is the overarching context that informs the therapist’s thinking, its causes can be wide-ranging, explains Rachel. 

“We’d define trauma as an emotional and physiological reaction to a situation which is negative,” she says.

“We see the interpersonal ongoing themes, like abuse, neglect, mental ill health in the home, a brain injury to the client or a loved one, or maybe witnessing something that has happened to a parent or a parent being in prison. In that situation, the trauma can be the after-effects of that. 

“There can also be the situation where a child has had the traumatic experience of abuse or neglect and then is removed from the home to a foster or care placement. This adds to the trauma as even though their first home was detrimental to their wellbeing, the child has been taken away from their safe place and attachment figures. So the trauma can impact on the attachment styles of the child, it can become maladaptive. 

“Some of them are so young – some are four or five when they come to us – and you have all of these layers that the child is dealing with, they’re already having to deal with such complexity. But that’s why it’s so important to make them feel safe and consistency is key to building the trust that will lead to them engaging.”

While Rachel has countless examples of successful progress and outcomes from children engaged by the Chroma team, she points out that its impact may not always be visible if you are working with a child for the minimum six-month period – but by laying the foundations, positive results can be achieved for children and families in time. 

“One of the things about therapy is that we don’t often see the full effects of it as therapists because it might start working a year down the line,” she says. 

“That’s when everything has been integrated. And that’s when the change can happen. It’s probably not something you can measure on the day you finish. 

“I’ll usually try and evaluate every six weeks and see what we are doing and what else we could be doing. It’s also really important, as well as the work you’re doing with the child, to help the parent feel more supported. That can help achieve a more enduring sense of change. By focusing solely on the child, you can impact on their behaviours. By focusing on the parent as well, you can elicit more positive attachment feelings, helping both parent and child feel safe and loved. 

“We had one situation where a child had no boundaries at all at home, it was complete chaos with the child ruling the roost completely, which can be frightening for the child because they don’t know who is in control. 

“We’ve been working with them since 2020 and the therapist has been able to model different relation-ships, which have been very positive for the child and they now feel safer in their relationship. They’ve worked really hard outside of the sessions. It has been hard work, but it shows that with the four-step plan and the commitment, we can achieve really good things.”

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