Art Circles: An Outlet for Traumatized Children

Helping youth express themselves after traumatic experiences
Child painting with watercolor on paper.

For the past 23 years, as a pastor and chaplain, I have found the arts to be a very important part of our Great Physician’s healing touch for our brothers and sisters coping with the psychological impact of illness and the traumatic acts of violence in our streets in America and the wars in Syria and Ukraine. 

Before seminary, I decided to pursue a MA in humanistic Psychology at Sonoma State University. My specialization at Sonoma State was art therapy. I completed my clinical hours at an alternative school for youth with mental health challenges. It was here that I more fully realized the healing power of the arts as a therapeutic tool. 

This is where art circles began for me. Instead of individual art therapy sessions, art therapy can be used as a group activity where the focus is more on the therapeutic milieu. Children strengthen their coping skills and sense of community together as they share their art pieces with one another. It’s almost like they are saying with markers and crayons, “I see you and you see me” when they show their art pieces to one another. 

Walking with youth after violence

As an urban pastor and volunteer police chaplain, I learned a lot about the signs and symptoms of PTSD. Not only are the first responders at risk of developing PTSD, youth and young adults are at greater risk of developing PTSD due to the epidemic of gun violence in America. I developed a trauma informed model of pastoral counseling after walking with 100 families after a homicide. This work helped prepare me for my art circles with Syrian and Ukranian children coping with the stressors and trauma of war.  

WestBridge ( mental health providers have outlined some key points regarding acute intervention steps for parents and caregivers after a child has been exposed to traumatic event:

  • Assure the child that you are there to offer support, and that they are safe.
  • Help the child return to a typical routine as quickly as possible.
  • Facilitate open discussion about the traumatic event, but don’t force it—let the child open up on their own terms.
  • Talk about constructive responses to the event
  • Monitor your child for any unusual behavior, and seek treatment if you have ongoing concerns  

Any concerned adult can assess with the guidelines above, understanding how important it is to refer for professional help.

I have often used my art circles as a preliminary psychodiagnostic tool to gauge the level of violence and trauma a child has been exposed to and their capacity to express their thoughts and feelings without avoidance behaviors, and/or are appearing to be locked in a excessively prolonged “fight or flight mode.” With my clinical background and art therapy skills, I can help  triage which children should be referred first to psychological first aid responders once they have relocated to a safer location outside the war zone. I regularly advocate for self care for the volunteers who support the refugee women and children because we can develop secondary trauma as we bear witness to watch the children have been through.

Art circles

In 2017 I went to Beirut to work on a humanitarian refugee resettlement case at the request of a Syrian family in Fort Collins, CO. Much like in Poland right now with the Ukrainian refugee crisis, Lebanon has provided an incredible level of compassion and hospitality. And yet refugees’ trauma may be compounded by poverty in their new homes. With economic crises and political violence on the rise, I pray every day for my Syrian picassos who are growing up in conditions that no child should have to endure. We need to love and nurture these kids, otherwise radical elements will pick from this low hanging fruit and more innocent civilians will die from acts of terrorism. 

Many children will test you to see if you are willing to be present with them when they show you what they have been through. At their level of psychological and neurological development they process their experiences and work things out through art and play. Art circles can provide an appropriate avenue to gauge their ability to achieve some catharsis and build rapport and engage in coping skills as they share their story with another compassionate witness. As a PTSD survivor, with 14 years of experience of managing my own symptoms, I often can tell that they see it in my eyes, that I get it. 

A blank canvas

In Howie’s Art circles we recruit an interpreter to bridge the language barrier and use a blank canvas and avoid coloring books. It’s about expression, not mechanics and perfection. The first pictures indicate whether they are ready to share the violence they have been exposed to. These art pieces facilitate some rapport building and catharsis. Often other children’s art pieces will inspire children to duplicate the symbols. For example, many Syrian and Ukranian girls follow the art themes. Boys tend to draw trucks and tanks and soldiers in battle. Both Syrian and Ukranian children like to create their national flags. After a child has had an opportunity to express and process their internal world on paper, I provide some closure and a container by asking them to show me the day that war is over and you and your family are able to return home again. “What does this look like for you?” It is important to have a referral system in place to provide follow up emotional/spiritual support. The Red Cross and Unicef have been invaluable partners for further stabilization and follow through.  

Having worked with children from Aleppo who would have been exposed to similar levels of violence that the Ukranian women and children are enduring throughout the Eastern and Southern fronts of the war, I share some of the more hopeful images the Syrian children from Aleppo drew for me over the past 5 years. I share with my Ukrainian picassos that my Syrian picassos would want them to know that they too will be able to get through this. After several years, many of my Syrian picassos are on the other side of this crisis and they can serve as signs of hope that these Ukrainian children will get there too with some time and healing. I encourage all my picassos to keep using their crayons and markers as a coping tool.

Centering image

I have started using a centering image before an art circle. Pastor Veronica at St Andrew Presbyterian Church where I was ordained would use this metaphor for our Christian witness in the world: “Jesus with skin on”. While working more recently with Ukrainian children in Poland and Ukraine, I have a deeper appreciation that these crayons and markers are instruments of our Good Shepherd and Great Physician in the dark valleys of death and violence that all too often traumatize and scar God’s innocent children in our world.

Throughout the Bible we hear the clarion call again and again: “Care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger” (Deuteronomy 14:29,  Malachi 3:5, James 1:27, 1 John 3:17). Art is one path toward healing. 

Your turn

When your congregation shares mission opportunities to support relief efforts for refugees, see if you can find out about arts-related opportunities that go along with meeting basic needs. When you seek to be present in your neighborhood after a traumatic event, bring out the art supplies and be ready to sit and listen. 

Faithful innovation stories 

Art and Social Healing

Healing Through Art

Howie Dotson

Howie Dotson

Howie Dotson is an interfaith chaplain and art therapist in the Twin Cities. He is one of the chaplains at Gillette Children's & Regions Hospital in St Paul and the founder of Howie's Art Circles, a new non profit being established to train and deploy psych-social volunteers to help nurture and support refugee children fleeing conflict zones (Ukraine & Syria). Howie has served as a missionary in South Africa, Kenya and Bahrain. As a chaplain/art therapist, he has provided art circles for Syrian refugee children in Beirut, Lebanon and Amman, Jordan and art circles for Ukrainian children in Warsaw, Poland and Lviv, Ukraine.

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