No need for words

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By Deirdre McConnell
on 27 May, 2017

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How people respond differently to traumatic events

In Manchester people have been amazingly resourceful in their responses to the horrendous attack on Monday night. This week we have seen how people have rallied to support one another in all sorts of ways - helping each other in times of crisis is a natural response in how we deal with trauma. Moving real life stories abound.

We know that children often use drawing or other creative means, as a natural response to experiences, including extreme ones. They may draw or make things, given the materials and the space, as their own way of expressing something that cannot be put into words. Drawing does not require having to find words. In fact drawing involves spontaneous coordination of hand, eyes and brain. It plays a central role in cognitive development, and the processes involved are among the fundamental sensorimotor and cognitive learning experiences in ordinary life.

As traumatic memory is stored in brain, mind and body, not just in our thought processes, creativity in which different parts of the brain, mind and body become connected and bring something new into being, can contribute to healthy recovery. Feelings and memories, however difficult, become channeled in an expressive process that moves things forward rather than locking the child into helplessness. This sense of agency is to be encouraged and is a natural process of healing. Mastery over the traumatic memory.

So if you see a child or young person doodling or mark-making, let the process they have initiated happen. You don’t have to interpret what they do, but simply acknowledge that they are working something out. You don’t need to talk about it at all, unless they clearly want to. And if they do, just listen and ask simple open-ended questions encouraging the child to use their own words, if they come. Otherwise sit calmly and gently with them, reassuringly, and be witness.

Encouraging their expression of what they think and feel through mark-making, will help feelings not to become bottled up.

People respond to traumatic events differently, according to life experiences, age and stage of development and so on. We know that talking about the experience, to familiar people, in a safe place, is a natural response, intuitive to the person’s way of expressing themselves. Many of us have been doing this regularly at points during this singular week. This may continue over the next couple of months. Or not.

A planned verbal ‘debriefing’ is not recommended. It used to be considered helpful, but it can indeed be harmful.

This week schools and all parts of the community in Manchester and further afield have been responding to the horrendous event on Monday evening at the Arena, in ways that are natural, caring and demonstrating the innate resilience that human beings have.

Creating safe spaces where children can draw or be creative in any way, without words, is one of the many constructive ways possible to help recovery from the ripple effects of this horrific event.

Our thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling events of the attack in Manchester this week.

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