Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Using Art Therapy in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been on the rise for several decades. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, and generally occurs after a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death has been endured.

Sexually Absued Children 

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is recognized as a traumatic experience that can have a number of adverse effects. Children who have experiences sexual abuse generally develop issues revolving around specific areas of functioning, ranging from behavior, affect, cognition, and interpersonal relationships. (Pfiefer, 2012) A saturation in both music and art therapy have been known to significantly appease many of the effects left over from the trauma.

The psychiatric explorations of child abuse, as well as art therapy case studies of child abuse originated in the early 1960’s. However, people did not truly begin focusing on refining the use of art therapy with child abuse cases until the 1980’s. This is because the sheer magnitude of child abuse cases did not start being unearthed until this point in time, with the annual amount of sexual assaults ranging from 60,000 to 4,000,000 a year. (Pifalo, 2006) However, the fact the the actual number of cases a year is so unknown is a testament in and of itself to the fact that many who experience child abuse are either too ashamed or scared to come forward and talk about it or tell anyone. This is the sole reason why art therapy has come to be known as one of the best therapies, as the child is able to express how the feel about what happened, and is given a release, in some way other than words.

Studies done in 1980s:

There have been many studies done over the years in art Therapy with children, but the real focus began in the early 1980’s. Art Therapy started being used in treating victims of sexual assault with PTSD in the 1980′s in women’s clinics all over the United States. Group art therapy was also discovered as the best way to help treat the effects of child abuse, as interaction with other abused children was thought to lessen the feelings of isolation and help them share their experiences.

Studies done in the 1990’s:

The Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS) is a three-picture art interview that was designed by Barry M. Cohen and Barbara Lesowitz in 1882 in order to assess art done during therapy sessions. However, until 1992 when a child friendly version was created, the only version to exist was geared solely towards adolescents and adults. This new method consists of free drawing incorporated with therapist-guided tasks. Therapists typically ask the patient to draw how they feel about certain things, to which the child draws a response. If the therapist has received proper training on how to interpret the results, they should be able to form a diagnosis based on the colors, lines/shapes used, and the use of people, as well as animate/inanimate objects, among other things.

The most notorious study that started in the 1990’s and went well into the early 2000’s centered around the abuse and negligence the many children faced in Russian orphanages. As a result of the conditions that these orphans faced on a day to day basis, not only was their physical growth stunted but their emotion growth as well. They faced potentially crippling psychological symptoms that made them unable to attach or relate to other people, such as the inability to trust, illusions of extreme independence, and the constant conflict between helplessness and the need for control. (Robb, 2002) During a 6-week summer camp hosted in Washington D.C. which hosted Russian children adopted into American families, many of the children which had been exposed to extreme trauma in their short lives showed signs of extreme anxiety and depressed, and were unable to concentrate on anything for more than a very short period of time. The purpose of this camp was originally to integrate the children into American culture and to supply them psychological support through art therapy. What the experimenter discovered was that when the children were given colors to paint with, they would rarely mix colors unless they were all mixed together, and avoided the color orange at all costs, something that she attributed to their high anxiety. Another aspect of their artwork that she noticed, was that the paintings and drawings were rarely, if ever completed. This was something she believed was due to the lack of trusting, or transitional space that the children possessed.

Studies done Today:

Studies recently have moved the idea of group art therapy out of the United States and other first world countries, and into smaller, less able third world countries where access to any sort of therapy is much less accessible. For example, a study was recently conducted in South Africa with sexually abused children and adolescents, where they examined the costs and benefits of all different types of settings that could be used for art therapy. Other studies continue to be done worldwide today, as the information and techniques on treating and bettering these children’s lives after experiencing such traumas are still developing.




Megan Robb MA (2002): Beyond the Orphanages: Art Therapy with Russian Children, Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 19:4, 146-150

Pretorius, G. (2010). Group art therapy with sexually abused girls. South African Journal Of Psychology, 40(1), 63-73.

Pifalo, T. (Annual 2006). Art Therapy with Sexually Abused Children and Adolescents: Extended Research Study.(Clinical report). .  Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association


BY: Anne Viccellio

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