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How do you heal a broken heart? Who do you turn to when sorrow and anger become overwhelming? We all struggle with those emotions while going through a divorce. This is especially true of children. While you are mourning the loss of your relationship, your children are in the middle of an emotional tug of war. Art therapy encourages adults and children to express those feelings in a safe environment and heal from the trauma caused by the breakdown of your family.  

Drena Fagen, LCSW, LCAT, ATR-BC is the Director of Programs at New York Creative Art Therapists PLCC. She co-founded the practice in 2005. It has become the largest creative arts therapy practice in New York City. There are now five licensed art therapists at the center. They work with adults, families and children using a combination of talk and art therapy to help people cope with life challenges. 

Drena is an accomplished artist. She gave up a career as an art director in advertising to focus on the healing arts. Drena is a graduate of the Pratt Institute Masters program in Creative Arts Therapy and the NYU School of Social Work. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at New York University in the Silver School of Social Work MSW program. 

For information on locating a credentialed art therapist in your state, contact the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Creative art therapists (LCAT) are licensed to practice in New York State. Many art therapists practice in other states under the LMHC or LPC licenses.

First Wives World had the pleasure of speaking with Drena about the benefits of art therapy for adults and children going through the trauma of divorce.

Women going through divorce and helping children deal with the trauma of a fractured family may not be familiar with your practice. How can art therapy help with that situation?

Drena: I guess there are some parallels in how we help both of them because we work with both adults and children in our practice. 

One of the fundamental things about art therapy that differs from talk therapy is that there are feelings and experiences we have that are difficult to relate with words. It’s almost more like a movement therapy or body oriented therapy. The expression of pounding some clay is a more effective means of communicating then words. 

Ultimately, we want to find words to organize the experience and make meaning, but sometimes, particularly at the beginning (the beginning can stretch out in divorce and seems interminable, like it’s never ending) there can be a long period where you just can’t find the words to express what is going on inside of you.

We know in mental health that if you are holding or repressing feelings, they are going to come back and haunt you later. The idea is to find some kind of outlet, if nothing else, an outlet to express so that you are not holding things in. This is a particularly serious issue for children. 

Adults tend to have a friend they can talk to, or maybe their lawyer is a good listener. There is someone they can be venting to. Kids feel stuck, particularly in the middle, and that they don’t have a place or an opportunity to say, well I love Daddy and I hate Daddy, and I love Mommy and I hate Mommy for what’s happening now. Those paradoxical feelings seem impossible to express, so then kids don’t express anything. The art becomes a place to put it. Parents could be using art expression without hiring somebody to facilitate it by just allowing their kids to draw pictures about what they are feeling and being careful not to judge whatever it is that they’ve put on paper.

Image courtesy of New York Creative Arts Therapists

How does the process start if a mother and children come to you? Do you have certain programs for divorce? 

Drena: We have some divorce groups that we do with children where parents have a separate group and the children have their own group. At the end, the children and the parents come together. 

The parents group is a bit more psycho educational and a little less art making. It’s more for the parents to help their children by giving them the skills in really simple terms, because there is a lot to absorb and figure out during this time.

The kids in those groups would be given specific direction as to what they do because they run for eight weeks and the goal is to reduce the children’s feelings of isolation.  Right off the bat, you walk into a group with other kids who are going through divorce and their reaction is, “Oh wow, I’m not the only one.” As ubiquitous as divorce is these days, it’s not like kids know that. It’s not like the kids at school whose parents are getting divorced are walking around announcing it. 

It reduces the stigma too, because there is a sort of stigma there, so universalizing the experience for the children in the group is kind of the first thing that happens. The activities are really opportunities to look at the wide range of feelings; the good and the bad feelings because for some children there may be relief that their parents are getting divorced. But then they are also sad, and can you be happy and sad at the same time and can you hate someone and love someone at the same time?

I think adults have a hard time with that concept as well. But the projects could be things like - What was life like…? Draw a picture. It’s not always drawing, by the way. So you could make a picture or construct some kind of house that represents how your life used to be, what it looks like now and maybe encourage them to create what they think it’s going to be in the future. 

There is an opportunity for the therapist to look at what their fantasies are because kids will hold a lot of fantasies. So will one parent, frequently, and there is some denial around this, like this isn’t really happening. The therapist has an opportunity to reality test and say, “Your fantasy is that in your future, your parents will be back together, but your parents probably aren’t really going to get back together.”

With the other kids in the group, there are going to be some other kids who are probably going to be more keyed into the reality. It would be useful for another child to see that one of his peers sort of has a better sense of how this might be playing out. 

Group therapy is actually a really great intervention for these kinds of crisis. It’s also a highly recommended intervention for abuse cases, it’s really common to do with sexual abuse, which isn’t what we’re talking about here, but there are certain parallels. It’s very traumatizing and stigmatizing. Children feel very isolated and they also feel like they are not allowed to express their feelings about it. A group gives them the opportunity to see other kids doing the things they need to do. They all learn from each other and they grow together. They come out often feeling like friends, which is nice because kids start to withdraw from their friends because they don’t feel that they can talk about what’s going on.

If an adult comes in to treatment, it would be individual treatment. We could do groups, we don’t, but like any psychotherapy it’s going to be very individually determined. When we use art with adults, we try to tailor it to the topic of the day. If someone came in talking about how angry they are about the difficulty they are having around negotiating custody or something like that, we may start to symbolically do something around the kids and the whole family system representing everybody as just a shape, so it doesn’t mean you have to be skilled. There’s kind of all these interesting levels of things that you can’t do in real life, but you get to play around on the metaphor level, and it’s very satisfying. It’s the stuff we wish we could do in real life. You get to play around with that in the art making.

Image courtesy of New York Creative Arts Therapists

How can parents help their children when they are making art at home? 

Drena: The most important thing I can tell you is that whatever the parent sees, they have to validate it. And that’s actually really hard to do. They are going to make things you don’t want to look at. Make as neutral as possible observations; “Oh, I see you made a picture of our house on fire. Everybody is running from the house, but somebody is still stuck inside.”

That is a very alarming picture. The parent has to be as neutral as possible and observe it so the child knows you saw it and you got it. The questions you could ask should be about the content and or the feelings that are being represented in the image, “So, what’s happening in this picture?”  “Who is inside and what’s going to happen next?” “What happened before?” Not questions that are leading, like “Oh, I hope the fire department is on its way.” 

Our inclination is to want to rescue our child from the negative feelings, rescue the picture from the trauma it’s representing. That’s not helpful because that is actually invalidating. That’s actually saying to the child, my feelings I just showed you are not acceptable because you are telling me basically to wipe away my tears. Does that make sense?

And it is our parenting tendency; the first place we go is to wipe the tears. We mean it to be soothing, but really it can be interpreted as invalidating because it means actually mommy doesn’t want to hear that I’m upset about this.

Here are some additional thoughts on how you can make your child feel safe enough to express himself freely and engage him in a non-judgmental conversation about his artwork:

- Ask the child to tell you about the picture before you make an observations.
- Avoid blanket compliments. "Oh, that's so interesting." "What a beautiful drawing."  Kids can tell if you really looked at the picture or if you are giving false praise.
- Remain neutral. Make comments about things that you actually observe in the picture. "I notice that all the leaves have fallen off the trees." "It is raining." "There are three people in the house".
- Be careful to not "read" into the picture, make interpretations, or assume that you know who is who in the picture.
- Stay curious. Ask open ended questions.  "I wonder what will happen next."  "Where is the boy going?"
- And most importantly VALIDATE. The simplest way to do that is to repeat back what your child said, almost verbatim. This will assure him that you are listening and you understand what he is trying to communicate.

A child is trying to work through and create a narrative for himself or herself about what is going on right now and that’s what the art making is for. Writing too; writing and story telling is also great for adults, it’s sometimes a little more accessible. Try not doing it in traditional journal form, but using some metaphors. For instance, start with an animal walking through the jungle and then you take your story somewhere. The metaphor just gives you a little bit of distance so that you can explore your feelings without feeling like you are writing your autobiography, because that is what you are living every day, and it’s exhausting. This can be a little more liberating.

There are some couples who can be civil and work together to co-parent. Do you ever have couples who split up and work together with the children?

Drena: A lot of times in a case like that, I’ll work with the mom and dad individually, sort of alternating weeks. Then I’ll see the whole family together every week, and then their children. So many families don’t tell their kids what’s going on  – kids have far more active imaginations and they will make up a much more horrible story in their head than what is really happening. They really will, so it is so important for them to know.

What we were doing with this family was first; the father had to come to terms with this reality, because he was reacting like this really wasn’t going on. They made a family book and the mom and dad worked separately because they couldn’t be in the room together.

We did a little photo shoot of the kids, the kids with the dad, the kids with the mom and then the mom and the dad separately. They could use those images to cut and paste and create the pages of their book. 

Some of it included hopeful things, such as “We’re going to be able to have dinner together as a family sometimes” or “You’ll come with Daddy during these holidays and you’ll come with Mommy during these holidays.” It was really this way of helping the whole family clarify what was it going to look like now that they are split up. 

Image courtesy of New York Creative Arts Therapists

Teenagers are already going through their own identity crisis. Do they have a harder time dealing with divorce?

Drena: I don’t think they do, they have a different time, but conceptually I think they have a better sense of it. Often, for teenagers there can be a sense of relief, as in - it has been clear that my parents haven’t been happy with each other. Even though it can still be quite destructive on many fronts, teenagers at least have the cognitive ability to understand it. It doesn’t mean that they still won’t have emotional reactions. 

It is really important for teenagers to have a voice and express those polarities like hatred and affection. If the teenager can’t be allowed to express affection for the father because the mom can’t tolerate hearing that, it’s really hard. Of course, that’s really hard for the mother too, but that’s reality. 

As soon as those feelings start getting shut down and being uninvited, that’s where some serious trouble can brew. A lot of teenagers resort to cutting or self mutilation these days. It tends to be more girls, but there is a trend out for boys too, which is really disturbing.  

That’s because there is no place for the feelings to be accepted and expressed in their family. If they are feeling like it’s invalidated and they can’t talk about it, they are just pushing it down and trying to find some kind of outlet. It’s maladaptive, and we don’t want them to be doing it that way. If you try to send a teenager to therapy during divorce, they are going to be like, “This isn’t my problem.” They’re kind of right, so they just need somebody to listen and let them have the full range of feelings.

Journaling is great for a teenager. If they are interested in the arts it can be useful, because it’s specific. 

Kids just naturally like to draw and they are more open about expressing their feelings through art. Is it harder for adults to do that? We have such an inner editor or critical side.

Drena: Which is too bad because these are really intense feelings that come up during this kind of turmoil. Yoga is great for grounding yourself and getting you in the moment and being mindful. I just use that as a ubiquitous example, but it’s not really giving you any sense of catharsis or ventilation, or a way to express all that stuff you are holding inside. Art - it's really pretty perfect. I keep thinking of the clay because frequently there’s so much rage in divorce. Just having big chunks of clay and being able to go down in the basement and pound away at it, even if you’re not actually creating anything specific; for our bodies it’s really good.

A lot of times it’s much more about the process than it is about the product. Yoga is a nice example, but if you just go and you’re allowed to make a big mess somewhere because what’s happening in your life is a big mess, it can be a sense of relief. It’s a place to be disorganized so you can come back to your life and be as organized as you need to be functional.

Image courtesy of New York Creative Arts Therapists

What about your own artwork? Do you get a chance to do a lot of painting or drawing? You were previously an art director in advertising, that’s quite a change.

Drena: In some ways, it’s quite a change. It’s much more emotionally challenging. I don’t do as much as I like. Life gets busy and my work gets busy, but I do like painting and drawing. My business partner does autobiographical cartoons and comics, which is a great thing for adults and teenagers to do in these situations; you know you’re documenting the narrative of your life in comic format. That’s very useful to have in a structured, almost classroom type environment, but obviously the content is much more personal so it has a therapeutic component.

How has art helped you on your journey through life or getting through the difficult times?

Drena: I think a lot of people who are drawn to art are using it in a kind of a therapeutic way without recognizing that. For me, it was a respite from whatever might be happening in my household that wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to be a part of. My parents are not divorced, but there are always the ups and downs of any family relationships. I was pretty good too, so for me it was this place where I could really experience a sense of competency. I could just hole myself up and make a little still life in my room and draw it or paint it exactly as I saw it. There’s something so satisfying about that. I got a lot of value out of that for a long time. Switching to art therapy; feeling competent and mastering a task can be therapeutic, especially if your life is falling apart. 

If there is one place you can go, like go to a ceramic studio and make a cup and your like, well at least I can make a cup. To start drawing and painting in a more expressive and emotional way was very foreign to me. Now that is all I do. Nothing I do looks like something across the room anymore. I think it was a big part of my identity and my self-esteem and now it’s an outlet, for sure. I work with a lot of traumatized clients, I hear a lot of difficult stories in my work and I have to put them some place, and so I generally put them into a painting. It becomes my container for the things I need to get out of me so that they don’t eat me up inside. It’s called vicarious trauma. I do burnout groups for other helping professionals, and other therapists. They come and basically try to keep themselves from being traumatized by their work by sharing their stories and making art.

What have you learned during your creative art therapy practice that you want to share?

Drena: It surprised me, my experience of it; it can be so unbelievably powerful because we are tapping into a part that we generally don’t communicate with in ourselves, especially adults more so than kids. Kids do it automatically. The surprises that come up in your artwork when you intentionally make something about something that is going on with you is kind of mind-blowing. I often forget because I do a lot of talk therapy too. 

Sometimes I’ll say I think we should do some art therapy now because I think it is going to take us somewhere interesting and I don’t know where it is going to take us. That’s a little scary too. I may be in control of what’s happening in the room, but the art will reveal much more than we think it will. Art therapy can get dismissed and pushed off to the side because of all the things you can think about it, but I am impressed with it on a regular basis, impressed by what it can do.

Thank you, Drena! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you

Do you express your feelings through art? Are you searching for a way to help your children cope with their emotions?  Please share your stories in the comment box below.

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