Art Therapy and 9/11

Drawing by Tamara Obradovic in 2001, when she was 9.

After 9/11, children in New York, and all over the country, attempted to process the overwhelming emotions they were suddenly forced to confront. One of the ways counselors and teachers and psychologists helped children was through the simple act of drawing pictures about what they saw, felt, and thought. In some cases it was a form of art therapy, and in others it was an informal way of giving children a tool to process emotions they probably didn’t have words for.

The drawing above is from a book that collected some of these drawings, titled The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 (it is listed for sale through Amazon via resellers). Tamara’s drawing was also featured in a PBS News Hour special from 2011 titled Then and Now: Children Draw to Cope with 9/11, which compares drawings children made in 2001 and then ten years later in 2011. The common theme is that children use art to explore complex feelings:

“In a national moment of grief and panic – and an equally charged time of remembrance – artwork becomes a way for to children re-interpret painful images in more familiar terms, to make sense of the unimaginable.”

Because 9/11 was such a singular event, many therapists have written specifically about the importance of art therapy for helping children at the time. Most of the articles I found on the subject were written years ago, but the general ideas will always have relevance for children who have experienced trauma and loss. For example, here is a quote from a National Geographic article in 2002 titled Children and 9/11: Art Helping Kids Heal:

“What we find is that children tend to draw the part of the trauma they don’t understand—the part they’re ‘stuck’ on,” said Suzanne Silverstein, president and co-founder of the Psychological Trauma Center at Cedars-Sinai. “Like adults, sometimes what they’re saying is not what they’re feeling. When they draw, they put it all out on paper.”

And there is this from an article titled What Art Therapy Learned from September 11th by psychologist Cathy Malchiodi:

“Studies during the past decade underscore that art is not just a “right brain” activity, but actually a “whole brain” activity that stimulates storytelling. In fact, research with children indicates that drawing while talking about an emotionally laden event can actually stimulate two to three times as much narrative than just talking alone.”

Dr. Malchiodi may be referring to this research study, titled Studies Find Drawing Facilitates Children’s Ability to Talk About Emotional Experiences, published in 1998:

“As every parent knows, getting young children to talk about emotional experiences is often difficult. But new research suggests that one way to overcome this problem is giving children an opportunity to draw while they talk…Researchers report that when relaying an emotional experience, children who drew as they spoke reported more than twice as much information than children asked only to talk about their experiences.”

So we know that drawing, especially in conjunction with a guided interview, is one of the best ways for children to explore difficult subjects and begin the path to healing. When I look at some of the artwork produced by children after 9/11, its evocative and visceral qualities are undeniable. Perhaps, as is true of any artistic pursuit, the final product has the potential to help not only the original artist, but also the subsequent viewer(s). [Click on individual images below for relevant links and more information]

From “Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001.”

‘Empire Fallen’ by Babul Miah, age 17, from the book “The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11.”

By Julian Cortez, 7, and Paul Keim, 8.

By Melanie Cohn, 8.

By Kenny Wang, 8.

Additional links:

Art for Heart: Remembering 9/11.“This book includes selections of artwork and messages from participants in the New York University Child Study Center and the Art for Heart Program of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, as well as the “Dear Hero” and “Notes of Hope” collections, which have been acquired by the National September 11 Memorial Museum.”

Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001.This is a collection of letters, poetry, and art by children in response to September 11th. All were sent to other children reflecting innocent support, outreach, and caring. This book is an archive of what children were thinking and feeling through their honest and heartful messages.”


8 thoughts on “Art Therapy and 9/11

  1. Pingback: Art Therapy And 911 | The Family Lives On Blog

  2. Pingback: International Dot Day…Self-Esteem Through Artistic Expression « Positive Parental Participation

    • I’ve known about art therapy, but did not know that children will open up more if they can draw while they talk. That is an important – and useful – therapeutic finding. Thanks for visiting!

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