November 4, 2008

Art Therapy: Special healing for kids facing cancer in a parent.

So for those of you that don't know, I'm an art therapist, I got my master's training at Eastern Virginia Medical School and although I'm not working as one right now, I am glad to have the training through my cancer journey as it has helped my kids cope.
Here are some ways that you can help children express themselves when faced with cancer in the family.
***Encourage them to talk, dedicate time to each child if there are multiple siblings...but we know some kids are too little to verbalize their feelings or sometimes older children are afraid to express negative emotions (like anger) for fear of disappointing a parent that has often told them to go to "time out" to pull it together. Creative expression is FREE of guilt, it's a POSITIVE way to sublimate all feelings and it's SAFE for the child and not so scary to put feelings on paper or manipulate clay. Try to look at the creative process as Active Mastery over an unknown...they can play and give words to characters...the characters can say and feel what they can not.

Body tracing was a successful project that we ended up bringing into a therapy session. The kids have seen a therapist for a few weeks now and I am relieved to have him work with them through this difficult time.

We took mural paper (but you could also tape paper together), I laid down on top of it, and each of them traced my body. Then they each had a life size version of "mommy" to work on and help heal. This project was done prior to my surgery as the therapist and I both thought that anxiety was building in them and a sense of lack of control. So this one (above) was done by my 8 year's the "inside of mommy". She made sure to add the chemo/medicine (yellow) that is still fighting the cancer and my blood (red) that carries it throughout my body. And the Cancer (blue) that has yet to be removed in surgery. She made a key just in case we were confused. She was able to demonstrate in increase in control over her mural despite lack of control on a daily basis.
This next body tracing is by my middle daughter she is almost 7 and in first grade.
She wanted to focus on my "skeleton" and she showed my blood flowing by encapsulating the drawing in a thick outline of red. Interesting to note, she added an umbilical cord in my "tummy" and she made a point of referring to that part of my anatomy as where she came from. She even wanted to sit inside the "tummy" for this picture.
We brought the murals into a therapy session and it was wonderful for mommy not to be the therapist but allow the kids to share with another adult their images. He encouraged them to add more to the images and they drew and cut colors (construction paper) and made shapes, glued and pasted. What warmed my heart most was when they traced their hands and then cut and glued them onto my was their way of laying hands on me and helping be heal.

In past posts I have shared images of the dolls we have made. Here is another picture of the medicine/angel and cancer/monster dolls...can you tell which is which? Emily had fun holding the cancer doll by the hair in a disrespectful way...again showing domination over the disease and letting it know who was in control. She is even showing in her expression that sense of control...such sass!!! It is great for her to give it to a doll instead of mommy...*grin*.
Ellie has made a story with a beginning, middle and end for the dolls to act out. We have actually tried to act it out on video too...but we agreed that we weren't loud enough and we needed a script to follow a little bit. The story starts by the character on the right singing at a microphone and the "monster" sneaking up behind her. The "angel" sees this and...
with all her power and faith (medicine/chemo) shrinks the "monster" so it isn't so destructive...After the "cancer" looses it's power it transforms into "color girl" and helps make rainbows for the world.

It's important to note that with school age children dealing with cancer in a parent can be quite traumatizing. Emily has asked me several times if I am going to die. Don't underestimate the thoughts that are going through their minds. We have chosen to share the diagnosis and treatment with the kids to a degree that they are able to understand it. Using art and creative activities has helped them sort out the huge emotions that come with a mom being sick. Children who are unable to express themselves can often exhibit difficulties in school and can have difficulty concentrating in class. Children who are younger can even demonstrate regression to earlier stages of development as a way of expressing their inner world of confusion as to why mommy is so distracted. My youngest was just starting to use the potty but she has slowed way down in using it on a daily basis. But she is able to scribble and draw and express herself each day.

Whether a child draws a story, writes a story, makes a doll (with clay or fabric) or manipulates a body tracing....artistic outlets help kids express their inner turmoil. Cancer is a big deal to anyone, but helping give a child tools to master it and feel like they have some say in what's happening is very empowering and will help them through a difficult time in their childhood. I have seen first hand how my kids have benefited from art therapy. I hope sharing this helps others somehow too.


  1. What a great post! I'd like your permission to link this post on Mothers With Cancer. I think it would be a great resource. Let me know :)

  2. I am amazed that more people do not utilize this in schools. As a former special education teacher and behavior specialist, I used art to help the kids open up about pressing issues. It was always incredible to see/hear the reactions from a child that was known to shut down emotionally and then act out.

    This was a great idea to help your babies through this time.

  3. I enjoyed reading every word of this post. Art is so important for the kids and adults as well. I love how your daughter wanted to sit "in your belly" for the picture. Be well and get that rest that you need to heal.

  4. I think it is so wonderful that you are able to help your children deal with all of this in a way that is so natural. I can't imagine having had to deal with a parent's illness at such a young age, but I know your girls will be so much stronger for having the outlet you are giving them!

  5. oh i love LOVE loveit jodi how fun and you shared your life with usthrough the eyes of your beautiful children what a special gift ou gave us all! I love the self portrait and how your precious angel expressed all the diffrent colors of mommys disease omgosh heart melting sweet! You are truely one blessed mommy!
    huge hugs

  6. Wow - you have an amazing family. Good for you for having them see a therapist and to offer them so many ways to express themselves - especially during this difficult time - it can only have a positive effect on them and help them cope. Best wishes to you all - so glad your chemo is finally over and you're on the road to recovery!

  7. Wow it's amazing. Art is so important for the kids and adults as well.I can't imagine having had to deal with a parent's illness at such a young age, but I know your girls will be so much stronger for having the outlet you are giving them!

  8. I think it is so wonderful that you are able to help your children deal with all of this in a way that is so natural.
    It's really Great have an amazing family. JODI

  9. Lavonne Fischer, MA, Sp.DJanuary 4, 2009 at 5:11 PM

    As I prepare to speak to a group of doctors about the benefits of art therapy for cancer patients, I ran across your website. As an art therapist and educator, and spiritual director, I was deeply moved by your story, especially the cut out hands being placed on your body for "hands on" healing. It goes to the heart of why we use art therapy for healing. And to the heart of children where honesty and love abide. Blessings and healing to you all.

  10. thank you all so much...links are welcome and I'm honored to have been found prior to your talk to the doctors...draw from within and let those feelings out :) Jodi

  11. I came across your site as I was researching the impact art has on children with long-term health challenges. I have designed a program whereby I go into the hospitals and have the kids make scrapbooks titled 'All About Me'. I think the act of designing pages using pictures of their favorite things will be emotionally healing for these kids. I can't wait to get started!
    To learn more visit