S10 - Relational Abuse, Neurological Damage And ‘Mess’ in the Art Room

Abstract for TAoAT 2002 by Frances O’Brien

Finding connections between the messy art therapy products of children who have been sexually abused, abandoned or neglected and the damage caused to the brain of the developing infant by relational abuse and household dysfunction, I explore whether the somatically held memories may be both remembered and forgotten through the art therapy process.

The phenomenon of “mess” in the art room when working with children who have been abused has been documented in art therapy literature. I will extend this to discuss how in addition, abandoned and neglected children also use the art therapy process in what appears to be a chaotic and messy way. I will explain how relational and sexual abuse as well as neglect causes serious damage to the brain, inhibiting the passing of information between hemispheres and reducing brain development. The infant who experiences household dysfunction, abuse or neglect may suffer developmental damage to the brain which can be linked to cognitive impairment, emotional damage and dissociative strategies being employed as a protective pattern.

I consider why children with this history use similar approaches to the materials and myself when in touch with distressing memories. There is frequently an excess of materials being used to expel thinking, as well as projection of unbearable feeling into the therapist. The parts of the brain being activated by making or looking at images seem to be the same as those concerned with emotional stress and imagining. This connection between vision and emotion suggests the messy products of an art therapy carry somatic memories of abuse and that in this way the mess could be viewed as a valuable tool in accessing and modifying very frightening pre-verbal and non-verbal experience.

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