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Art Therapy for Child Sex Abuse (CSA)Survivors.

Art Therapy for Child Sex Abuse (CSA) survivors.

Jen Williams-Perkins

Children, in particular younger children, don’t understand the sexual behaviours of adults, exposure to these aspects of adult live produce trauma and often lead to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (PTSD)

Our sense of self is often fused with the integrity of our body; when our body is violated

it embodies the traumatic experience, causing the abuse survivor to live in both a body and a world that is now perceived as dangerous, damaged and lifeless.

Under normal circumstances, people react to a threat with a temporary increase in stress hormones and then they return to baseline, however, in an event in which a person is unable to move or do something to protect themselves, the body cannot feel safe and the stress hormones continuously pump into the body to no avail, this causes long lasting scars.

Even years after the traumatic event, flashbacks cause traumatised people to relive the event as if it is happening in the present moment.

Studies have established that when our stress hormones are activated in the brain area called the amygdala, this is our fight, flight, freeze response, the executive functioning part of our brain simultaneously turns off, this causes us to struggle to coherently remember events or verbalise them into logical accounts.

This is why art therapy can be so valuable, the deactivation of the executive functioning side of our brain directly impacts our ability to translate feelings and perceptions into words, post traumatic disorders are mostly non-verbal, meaning talking therapy alone may not be enough, however, talking at the same time as producing art, can allow the brain to open up in a different way to normal, enabling complex feelings to be expressed.

Art Therapy or Art Psychotherapy is a therapeutic process in which clients are invited to engage with different forms of art / image making techniques that do not require verbal expression. It therefore allows survivors of CSA to express deep and overwhelming feelings and emotions without having to navigate the verbal barriers. The process of creating art or images gives expression to an inner state and gives a voice and structure to contained emotions through an unspeakable language.

Over forty years of scientific investigation have demonstrated that expressing our inner world through creativity can alter moods, attitudes and emotions, but more significantly it also influences neuro-endocrine pathways that control our physiologic (bodily) responses!

Expressing through image making can:

· Reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system and reduce stress

· Promote relaxation and a sense of well-being

· Reduce anxiety, depression and pain

· Promote general quality of life

· Help regain empowerment

· Help regain a sense of purpose

The art / image making process accesses the same part of the brain where the traumatic memories are often stored, this facilitates a translation of traumatic memories into symbols; which can distance clients from their pain allowing them to stop re-experiencing the trauma as a present threat.

Art therapy can help transform this reliving of the event, as if it is happening presently, into a memory, in memory form the body does not react to an immediate threat and therefore reduces the long-term damage that can be caused by being in a constantly elevated state.

Survivors of CSA may struggle with trusting authority figures, making talking therapy even more difficult for some. In art therapy the survivor cannot only express the trauma but also build a relationship with the therapist in a boundaried, contained environment, their lost sense of boundaries can be re-instilled and reinforced by the therapeutic frame and the physical properties of the art materials, which assist the exploration of a persons’ inner and outer world. The container created provides a safe space to explore overwhelming emotions and helps to reconcile feelings of guilt and confusion often felt by survivors of CSA.

Art materials also help to physically direct anger towards the perpetrator, which can help prevent the survivor from turning that anger inwards and potentially self-harming.

The creative art process can also restore self-esteem and allows physical sensations, often blocked out following sexual abuse, to be rekindled.

The physical nature of the art materials has been shown to have a positive effect on the hyper arousal symptoms of PTSD. In child trauma survivors, it has been found that by becoming aware of different parts of the body moving during the physical manipulation of art materials (known as kinesthetic activity), the clients were able to release tension, feel more relaxed and gained an increased ability to tolerate stress.

The healing power of art is real and hugely significant!

Art therapy takes place with a trained professional who facilitates the process in order to unlock its healing benefits.



Chapman, L., Morabito, D., Ladakakos, C., Schreier, H., Knudson, M. (2001) The Effectiveness of Art Therapy Interventions in Reducing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms in Pediatric Trauma Patients, Art Therapy, 18:2, 100-104, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2001.10129750

Coleman, K., Macintosh, H.B. Art and Evidence: Balancing the Discussion on Arts- and Evidence- Based Practices with Traumatized Children. Journ Child Adol Trauma 8, 21–31 (2015).

McKinnon, Katelynn K. (2019) "Drawing Out Trauma: Visual Art Therapy for Child Sexual Abuse Victims," Intuition: The BYU Undergraduate Journal of Psychology: Vol. 14: Iss. 1, Article 7. Available at:

Murphy , J.(1998) Art therapy with sexually abused children and young people, Inscape, 3:1, 10-16, DOI: 10.1080/17454839808413054


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