Art draws out anguish of traumatised youngsters

Wherever children are traumatised, giving them a pen and paper and asking them to draw what they feel is one of the best forms of therapy. It has been used in every kind of war zone - from abusive families to international conflicts.

Often it is the only kind. Young children who have witnessed the horror of losing their parents or seen their home destroyed may be too shocked to speak. Unable to express their feelings or find words to describe them, drawing offers a way of pinning down the thoughts racing through their heads. Then they can cope.

The picture from Darfur on the front page is dominated by two huge explosions - a graphic illustration of how terrifying the deafening noise and blinding light would be to a child. Other pictures drawn by the children display the conflict from a more distant perspective - suggesting it is the bombing that invokes the greatest horror. The pictures have a further purpose. After the 2004 tsunami, children in Sri Lanka and Indonesia were encouraged to draw what had happened. Their images showed them caught in the flood, arms raised, transfixed as the wave bore down.

Some clung to trees as televisions, fridges and bodies floated by in what marked the end of their world. Yet the intense colours and graphic imagery sent a message - we have survived.

Kathleen Doorbar, a child psychologist in north Wales who has worked with traumatised children, said: "I have used art therapy all my life as a form of communication. It is a brilliant way for them to get their feelings down - and to get rid of feelings.

"Children may be able to draw tanks and guns even though they are unable to speak about them. Once it is on paper, it is real and can be dealt with. While it is in their head, they can't formalise it."

Children often made excellent witnesses, better than adults, because they were naturally curious and had time to observe. "Adults are always busy with things to do. Children have nothing to do but observe what is going on. Often they see more than the adults do and they see more detail. You can tell something of what they feel from the size of objects in their drawings. If a tank fills the picture, for that child it is the most massive fear."

In a domestic setting, children can condense a whole world of longing into a single drawing. In hospital they will draw themselves shut away, isolated from all the other children outside. Or represented as a tiny figure swamped by hundreds of tubes and drains. "You can tell a lot about how they feel," Ms Doorbar said.

Families can find themselves suddenly exposed. One child drew her family showing only her mother and sisters, leaving her father and brothers out. Another child, the natural daughter of foster parents, asked to draw a picture of herself, instead drew a house. When asked why she explained she was the house. "People come here and I have to look after them," she said.

By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, The Independent (UK), 2 August 2007