Creative arts therapy helping young children

19th October 2021

When Sarah* was five, she was trapped on the second floor of her house as the water level raised not knowing if she would be able to escape. The unprecedented floods in 2015 had a dramatic effect on the youngster, leaving her with high levels of anxiety particularly around family events.

Promoting Autonomy & Change (PAC), based in Carlisle, supports young people struggling with anxiety, bullying, grief or who have been the victims of abuse. It provides one-to-one counselling and specialised therapy to young people throughout Cumbria who need support for emotional, interpersonal or mental health problems. It is regularly contacted by primary schools, GP’s and parents looking for support for under 10’s as there is currently no mainstream provision. These referrals are evidence of the growing demand for support needed for children at an early stage.

Thanks to £10,115 from the Cumbria Fund and Moorhouse Grassroots Fund, PAC was able to pilot a creative arts therapy project targeted at children under 10. Early intervention may prevent the escalation of a child’s condition and potentially more serious and costly treatment in the future.

Jen Chambers, Development Manager, said: “The funding enabled us to work with 13 vulnerable and hard to reach children who needed therapeutic support. All presented with different mental health issues including anxiety, suicidal thoughts, grief, behavioural issues, and early trauma and abuse, which affected their day-to-day interactions with peers, teachers and relationships within the home.

“The weekly therapy helped children improve self-esteem and confidence, develop positive coping strategies to deal with their emotions, understand their own personal triggers and reduce anxiety levels.

“Art, music, dance, movement, drama, play and sand play therapies have been used and focussed on emotional issues and trauma,” said Jen. “By communicating visually, a child is helped to illustrate and integrate their mental health trauma. Music therapy uses music to effect positive changes in the psychological, physical and cognitive aspects of a child’s poor mental health. Dance/movement therapy focusses on the relationship between body and mind assisting the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process to improve feelings around poor mental health. Drama therapy helps the child tell their difficult and often painful story through puppetry, masks, role play and storytelling. Play Therapy is a way of helping children express their feelings and deal with their emotional problems, using play as the main communication tool.

“As each child had their own approach – no one size fits all – we have been able to offer the children the number of sessions they required and where necessary signpost them and their families to other options to continue their journey.”

The project also offered small group sessions in a local school to engage with some of the harder to reach clients. “By working with schools, it was not only beneficial to the children receiving the therapy but also in supporting and aiding teachers to enable them to focus more on the job of teaching. Teachers also reported back that some of the children were more focused after their therapy session and therefore more willing to engage in their work and further their own learning,” said Jen.

Sarah was able to express her feelings through the art therapy and was given techniques in managing her anxiety. Towards the end of her therapy, Sarah attended a family event and shared that she felt happier, calmer and more confident.

*name changed