Expressive therapies which involve art, dance and music could help children cope with trauma says Spanish clinical psychologist Olga Martin

Anju (name changed) was 17 when she was picked up off the streets and brought to one of Don Bosco’s six centres for the young-at-risk in Kochi. At nights though she often wet her bed and her caretakers wondered why. “This is a classic sign of children who’ve been sexually abused. In adulthood they may display poor bladder control,” observes Spanish clinical psychologist Olga Martin. Olga has spent the last four years working with the staff and children of Don Bosco’s Kerala and Karnataka centres through workshops and training programmes that ease trauma in children.

“We see many signs of trauma in the children who join us,” says Fr. Kuriakose Pallikunnel, Director of Don Bosco Youth Counselling Service, with whom Olga organises these workshops. “It stems usually from familial dysfunction, an alcoholic parent or parental separation,” he says. Most of Don Bosco’s 150-odd resident children arrived at these centres either after the police found them at railway stations and other transit points, or through the Child Welfare Committee’s Childline helpline. Over the years, Kuriakose notes that while the number of outstation children found at railway stations has decreased, there is a notable increase in children from “dysfunctional families, from within the State, where they have been either physically, emotionally or sexually abused.” The hot spots for drug peddling, alcoholism and gangsterism are the same areas from where these children are rescued, says Kuriakose.

Recognising signs

Recognising the signs of trauma in young children is the first step to addressing them, says Olga. “The most obvious signs are often misinterpreted by caretakers as bad behaviour or indiscipline,” she says.

As a psychologist in Spain, Olga had developed a project that incorporated many expressive therapies, such as art, dance and music therapies, that could help children cope with trauma.

A chance meeting put her in touch with Don Bosco’s Barcelona wing through which she was introduced to Kuriakose, who was at the time looking for someone to boost local centres’ mental health programmes, and thus Olga reached Kochi in 2009. “Many traumatised children are unable to articulate in words what they’ve been through,” says Kuriakose. “Expressive therapies help them access these places within themselves, and also give the counsellor a starting point to work with. For instance, in art therapy children will invariably draw about their own lives and the therapist thus enters their inner world,” he explains.

In India, Olga established her NGO Street Heroes of India with her friend and lawyer Marita Sola. One of her earliest workshops taught children how to raise their self-esteem through various group exercises, develop their assertiveness, increase their self-motivation and release negative emotions. She has since brought various professionals from Europe to work with Don Bosco’s staff and children.

One of them was a month-long photography workshop by Katherin Wermke, where children were taught to use basic cameras and collectively, they created thousands of pictures. Each picture followed a principle - the child had to reflect on the emotions he/she felt and capture a picture that would aptly represent that feeling. “This puts the child in control of his/her moment and they’re able to share without speaking,” says Olga.

Another workshop by Natalie Jovanic used storytelling as therapy and another by Lourdes C. used puppetry. “Both work by enabling children to access their own stories in the third person, by pretending to tell someone else’s story.” Similarly, dance therapy works especially well for sexually abused children, by improving their body image and bringing back a co-ordination between their body and mind, says Kuriakose. “Many sexually abused children begin hating their bodies and mentally disown their bodies,” says Olga. “Dance builds back their self-esteem.”

Over the course of 2014, Olga hopes to bring many more professionals in art and dance therapy to work with Kochi’s children, besides bringing out handbooks and manuals for staff in the city to continue using once the workshops close. “Dealing with mental health issues can be quite a challenge. Training staff helps them approach children well and workshops with children help them unlock a variety of positive emotions beyond anger and sadness. This is as important as their physical and social development,” concludes Kuriakose.