Bullies and Victims- They all need a little love.

photo-36In the wake of the horrific tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, tighter gun control policies have been the primary topic on the airways, with little discussion on mental health issues of the gunman. Our nation is still in a state of shock and disbelief as we grieve from afar with the families and community of these young victims, perhaps preventing the conversation from focusing on the motives of a very deranged individual.

At this point, there is speculation of an Asperger’s diagnosis for the gunman, and reports that he was a quiet and socially awkward young man. Assuming this is a correct diagnosis, it is important to stretch one’s thinking beyond the diagnosis and consider the social dynamics a person with Asperger’s often encounters in their life.  As an art therapist working in the trenches of the mental health field, bullying and victimization still is a topic driving kids to commit acts of violence on themselves and others. Sadly, the bullies and victims suffer equal kinds of pain. My guess is that at some point, the topic of bullying might surface relating to the tragedy in Sandy Hook. This post will explore our own connection to bullying and victimization.

Most likely everyone has encountered some type of bullying or victimization in their lives, either at school, within the family, or even in the work place. There are multitudes of books written on this topic, but today we will explore empathy. Can you think of a time you were a bully or a victim? Please spend a few minutes writing or drawing about it. What happened? How did it make you feel? Was it pervasive enough to shape your personality? How did you react to your situation?

If you were the victim, and now have some distance from your bullying experience, can you identify what might have led the bully to behave in the way they did? Were they bullied themselves? Did they have something painful happening in their home life? Most bullies are usually being bullied themselves, and when they finally arrive in a mental health setting and have the layers of emotions peeled back, sadness and pain are often at the root of their actions. Did you repeat the behavior of becoming a victim again in another setting? Bullies are very good at finding a vulnerable person to be their victim. If you were conditioned to be the victim at an early age you might have replicated this behavior over and over in your life. Admitting to this pattern can be the beginning of this journey towards healing.  Finding empathy for a bully/abuser can empower a victim into becoming a survivor.

If you were a bully, can you identify what led you to victimize people? Were you bullied? Can you identify feelings from being bullied yourself? Did you feel empowered when you bullied others? Were sadness and pain at the root of the cause of your bullying behavior? Can you ask for forgiveness to the people you bullied if you still have contact with them?

Sadly, these early experiences, often shape who we become. Carrying the pain around can be debilitating, and is often the root of so much anguish. The question to ask yourself is, are you controlling your emotions or are they controlling you?

Relating this back to the Sandy Hook tragedy, there seems to be much talk about what we can do in our own communities. The common thread running through all of the past tragedies involving innocent lives lost to random acts of violence is the lack of love, respect and attention these gunmen were getting from people in their peer groups. Can you look around your current environment and befriend a person who looks isolated or lonely? This random act of kindness can make all the difference to creating more compassionate communities.



Collaboration vs. competition

Collaboration vs. competition

Which world do you live in: one in which people get along and work together or one in which “survival of the fittest” is the theme? Your answer to this question most likely is an indicator of your current level of happiness.  Please take a minute to find some paper and a writing utensil for today’s art directive. Think of where you spend most of your day. Make an image of a symbol representing you in the middle of the page. Your symbol might represent the role you play in your setting. Please think of the other main people you surround yourself with in your daily environment. Take a minute to think of each person as a symbol. Symbols can be powerful images which translate complicated ideas into a visual concept.  This simple art directive can speak volumes about your current predicament. Is there a main source of stress, or one person altering the mood of your setting? Is there anything you can do to alter the mood or change the dynamics?

If your current setting is one with fierce competition, this might be a source of stress. It turns out that humans and animals are really wired for a world in which collaboration is the guiding principle. In our early 21st century worldview, we might be seeing a slight paradigm shift towards this style of thinking and living, even on the playground and in wildly popular apps like “Minecraft”.  Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” original theme of evolution has really been mangled to fit the needs of a late 20th century line of Western thinking, highlighting the supposed norms of greed and massive income inequality. He did not actually coin this phrase, and felt very uncomfortable with it being connected to his work. Let’s just all be friends….it’s how we are wired.

Art Making after Hurricane Sandy

DSC_0272Many Americans are suffering this week due to the unprecedented Super storm that ravaged the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. For those of us just watching horrific images on T.V., we might be feeling helpless and unsure of what to do. Studies show that images on T.V can also produce trauma, and for children, can cause feelings of uncertainty and fear. Children are usually the ones most affected psychologically in these situations. Although kids often appear resilient, some guided art making might aid in gauging their emotional status and give them an opportunity to express their feelings.

If you have access to some paper and a writing utensil, please ask your child to draw something relating to this recent storm. If you are reading this and really without any resources, it is also possible to make art outside using things around you including a stick and drawing in the dirt. Try not to guide them too much in rendering a perfect image. The goal here is the process, not the final product. Even stick figures can be a very powerful way to communicate a huge array of feelings. In art making, children need boundaries and the edges of the paper actually provide these boundaries, allowing them to safely place all of their emotions onto the paper. Art therapists often will draw in a border creating a boundary for them to safely make this art work. I would recommend doing this if you think your child needs some extra structure to complete this art project.

A very basic  lesson in the latest neuro research on trauma reveals that incidents of trauma are stored in the right brain in images, and when one is asked to describe their trauma in words it is virtually impossible. Language, which is stored in the left brian, simply can’t access that information to explain thoughts and feelings connected to it. By transferring this trauma onto paper, this allows a person to suddenly have a place to begin that dialogue of addressing words and feelings related to the event. The sooner one can draw these images following a trauma, the less long term damage this can have on a child.

A goal in art therapy with children experiencing trauma is to give a child “ownership” over their feelings. By capturing the images in their head and putting them on paper and processing the events with a loved one or a professional, helps give ownership to the traumatic events they just witnessed.  Another key to understanding children’s art is to ask open ended questions relating to the art, without assigning emotions and assuming an understanding of the images and symbols. A child might express anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, etc. It is important to allow them to express these feelings without censoring them as the express these emotions. This will make them feel validated and more likely to verbally express things they are feeling.

This dialogue with a loved one can have a profound impact, and open up channels of communication that might not be possible without the art as a tool to guide the discussion. The ultimate goal with art making and children suffering from trauma is to help a child re file that information into a part of their brain where the event is less visceral and immediate, allowing them to still recall the memory, but with less “fight or flight” reactions with the memory. Following this image up with another one relating to a future time when things will be calm and predictable might be helpful in setting  goal for the future.

Art making is a very powerful tool to open this dialogue of what exactly happened in the past week, and you don’t need to wait for an art therapist or art professional to make this happen. If you do find that there are pervasive symptoms relating to trauma and your child is in need of counseling related to the after effects of Hurricane Sandy, please seek further assistance through the many organizations who will be providing these services in the coming weeks to the victims of this event. Art making as a way to cope with trauma can also be very powerful for adults as well.

Following Your Dreams

Just follow your dreams..blah, blah, blah…Does this sound like a familiar and cliché statement? Although this blog is being written by an optimist, I am the first one to be skeptical by the stuff dished out by pop culture. Today we will explore our dreams, as in: very high, but reachable goals we would like to set for ourselves.

Please find some paper and a pen. At the top of your page, write your dream..please think of something that is a stretch, but reachable. At the bottom of the page, write something that you can do today to take some micro steps to make it happen. There might be a huge empty space between the top and the bottom of the page, but the micro steps are the ones necessary to get to the top of the page. Can you create a time line for yourself by adding today’s date at the bottom and the target date for reaching this goal at the top? Most people never achieve their dreams because they talk themselves out of it before they even begin. Can you think of other micro steps you can take to head in the direction of your dream?

There also might be many negative voices as you write this information down dissuading you from follow through. Please acknowledge these (negative people behind the negative voices) and proceed onward. Good Luck. Start Small.

Digital Sabbath

Digital Sabbath. Not a new idea by any means, but one being thrown around lately. Can you unplug to be with your loved ones for a day, half a day or even an hour? This conundrum we have found ourselves in happened so quickly, most of us can probably trace our rapid plunge into this new reality phone contract by phone contract along with evolving technology. If you have observed young children these days, this is the only reality that they know.

For a little insight into this experiment and experience, please find some paper and jot down a few reasons for not unplugging yourself. Now find a time and some people you enjoy hanging out with for some eye contact, conversation and other activities, preferably in a place which doesn’t have any screens. Turn off your devices and tuck them away somewhere safe. Have your friend or friends do the same. When you return, let the experience sink in for a few hours and then jot down some feelings connected to this experience . What exactly did you miss about your machine? Are you finding it hard to just simply communicate with others as we rely more and more on texts and documenting our world. Good Luck. If you succeeded in this adventure and enjoyed it, could you try it again for a longer period of time?

Yesterday’s project: Were you able to learn more about neuroplasticity. Did any of the information encourage you to try tackle something new?

Neuroplasticity and art

Neuroplasticity is a newer idea emerging into pop culture. At its simplest level, it means that our brains are actually much more mailable than we ever thought possible, allowing us to stretch to the limits to learn new things and accommodate for deficits. This topic has been written about extensively, even for lay people not well versed in neuroscience. How can this apply to art and how can this apply to you? In many ways, this paradigm shift in thinking puts us front in center of having a lot of control over our lives. In the past, we could blame our genes and other factors for limitations. As new studies emerge, it is clear that we really can tap into parts of ourselves to expand our creativity and learn new things. It turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

For today’s art project, we will just spend some time wrapping our head around this idea if it is a new one for you. The following link is of a TED talk on this topic if you want a more in-depth understanding of this fascinating topic:

For an art project to accompany this idea, please find some paper, and write down some things you didn’t think you could do ( things within reason, please avoid things like getting super hero powers etc) such as learning a new language, to speak in a public venue, master a new hobby or skill, write a book etc…Write down your fear or the first thing that comes to mind which might prevent you from following through with some of these plans. With this newfound knowledge of neuroplasticity, do these excuses for not trying something new still make sense? Can you pick one thing off of this list to try? Can you try this new thing for 30 days?

Artist Trading Card Wall for your Home

 Artist Trading Card. This is simply a 2.5×3.5 inch card (similar to the size of a playing card), decorated anyway you please. Artist Trading Cards are a phenomenon that has swept the world over the past decade, originating in Europe. The only rule connected to them is that they are not meant to be bought or sold, only traded or given away. The charm and widespread interest in ATC’s are due to their diminutive size which is small enough not elicit any anxiety over one’s creative abilities. Artist Trading Cards can be executed using virtually any medium including: pencil, paint, collage, thread, fabric, stencils, words, photos, etc. Please find some card stock weight paper or heavier, cut it down to 2.5 to 3.5 inches and let your creative spirit soar. Feeling creative? Make a few and give one to someone special in your life.

We like them so much, we have turned a wall in our bathroom into a small gallery. We set up a station with a little rolling cart to give guests who are using our facilities an opportunity to be creative. The cart includes: 2.5×3.5 cards, magazine pictures, magazine words, stickers, markers, glue stick, goggly eyes, and scrapbook removable dots to hang them up. This has made our bathroom a gathering place of sorts.

Post Mother’s Day USA

Like or not, we are all connected to Mother’s Day here in the USA. Unlike other days invented and endlessly marketed by our culture, this one lives on a stratosphere of its own. For reader’s living outside of the US, this blog entry might be relevant for you as well. Most likely motherhood conjures up some sort of emotions, depending on where you are on the spectrum as: a daughter, son, mother, grandmother, foster parent, step parent, soon to be parent, unable to become a parent, etc.

For today’s art project, we will explore our connection to motherhood through a letter writing exercise. Please find some paper and a pen. Write a letter to yourself and describe the most complicated emotion connected to Mother’s Day and the topic of motherhood. Give yourself some advice on how to tackle the emotions you connected to it. Now turn the letter over and start over, with another letter to yourself but date it ten years from now. Explore those same emotions, but imagine that time has aided in giving you wisdom connected to handling these emotions. What kind of advice can you give yourself? Can you think of ways to self soothe yourself if these emotions are intense or a source of baggage?

Yesterday’s art exercise:

Are you a victim or a survivor. This is a loaded question might require quite a bit of time and energy to answer. The goal is to become a survivor and the best way to start is to think of yourself a survivor. Survivors tend to have a quality of resilience. One way to think about this is to ask yourself, Do you own your emotions or do they own you?



Are you familiar with TED and the TEDx phenomenon? If you have not discovered this remarkable website please check out I am including this information about the wonders of TED and their concept of “Ideas Worth Spreading” to promote this incredible source of information and my own TEDx event. I have secured the license to host a TEDx event in my city. This event will take place on 10/17/12 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, Kansas. The theme of the event is “Game Changers” and speakers include: an Art Therapist, Theoretical Physicist, a Plant Geneticist and several other game changers in their respective fields.

This event will be live streamed through my website,, and more information can be found on the soon to be released IPhone App called TEDxOverlandPark. Thanks!

Victim or Survivor?

We all have baggage. Depending on our age and life experiences, some of us have more baggage than others. Our baggage might come from of some type of trauma, bad adults from our childhood, or even a recent bad work experience. Resilience is a buzz word getting thrown around these days, but the essence of being a resilient person boils down to how we categorize ourselves in relation to our baggage. Are you a survivor or a victim of these things that happened to you? We cannot change these things. We really can’t even change the people who did them to us or are doing them to us….We can only change ourselves and our attitude.

Please find some paper and draw or write about an experience in which you feel like you were victimized. This art exercise has the potential to be powerful and downright scary if you are exploring some serious trauma. If this is the case, please find someone you trust or feel safe with to explore these experiences with or even bring your art to a mental health professional. The simple explanation of the power of art making with brain science is that trauma is stored as images in the right hemisphere of our brains. When we try to explain our trauma to someone, this proves to be a challenge, because we are attempting to couple language (a left brian activity) with these images. By drawing the image onto paper, even in metaphor, we are suddenly giving ourselves something with which to have that dialogue. Art therapy has proven to be a very powerful tool for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been a powerful tool for alleviating symptoms connected to PTSD. In very simple terms,  by taking the images out of this right hemisphere and onto paper, we can take time to analyze it and re-file the memory into our brain in a safer region, one that stores memories, making the experiences more distant and less sensory oriented.

If you are a victim, the road to becoming a survivor might involve a tremendous amount of work on your part, but is well worth the effort. If this post strikes a chord with you, please seek help from a trusted person to guide you through this process. Another way to approach this exercise is to ask yourself if you control your feelings or if they control you?

Yesterday’s Art Exercise:

Were you able to assign a person to each negative voice in your head? Sadly many of them might belong to teachers or adults from your past. Were you able to trace the roots of the voice owners’ own negativity? Realizing that these voices are not really in your head, but real people form your past or present is a great way to separate yourself from them and replace them with positive thoughts and voices of your own.