Make Sure Plan B’s in Your Back Pocket


Make Sure Plan B’s in Your Back Pocket

So you’ve got a client, and you’ve got art materials.  Now the two are working together.  Things seem to be going smoothly, and then—WHAM!—the client begins to begins to demonstrate a sudden shift in affect and appears to be having problems keeping things under optimal control.  S/he may be shutting down, or s/he may be revving up.  Either way, it’s your responsibility as the therapist to help create an opportunity for your client to re-regulate and resume control.  How?


People who aren’t too savvy with the use of artmaking in therapy might be tempted to remove the art materials and perhaps the art product from the client in an effort to achieve this.  While these clinicians have clued into the fact that something about the materials have triggered an unpleasant response, their decision to take things away from the client suggests a clear nonverbal message along the lines of “you screwed up and can’t handle these things at this time.”  In other words, the client receives a failure message.  It’s important to take things away from the client—hopefully with the client’s acknowledgement—if they pose a danger to her or him.  But if imminent harm isn’t an issue, then let’s rethink that failure message.


“If you start it with art, you have to end it with art” is a brilliant piece of advice from Melissa Dilworth, LPC-AT/S, ATR-BC, RPT-S, an art therapist in San Antonio.  What she means is that you should plan ahead for how you will adjust the artmaking in the event that your client begins to exhibit signs of distress.  Art media can be used to titrate an individual’s ability to tolerate uncomfortable psychological material, and perhaps your selection of media invited too much exposure. Verbally trained clinicians and their clients are better off using materials that support the cognitive control of affectively charged content and provide reflective distance from it.


These two qualities also define the essence of verbal therapy, so materials in this category lend themselves handsomely to verbal therapy processes.  Examples of such materials include beads, markers, and fabric scraps. In order to determine whether a material falls into this category, a tripartite rule to remember is that if a material is resistive to the exertion of pressure (meaning that its form is not altered; ex: beads), easy to manage when exerting pressure (meaning that it doesn’t create unintended forms; ex: markers), or demonstrates resilience after pressure has been exerted (meaning that it bounces back to its original form; ex: fabric scraps), it’s unlikely that the material will contribute to regression and retraumatization.


While there’s no way to write an article that will provide you with all the how-to’s of getting a client back on track after s/he derails during the artmaking process, it’s essential that you have Plan B in your back pocket in order to help your client realize that s/he can be successful in managing unpleasant thoughts and feelings.  Success in this area is called self-regulation, and it’s what we are called upon to help our clients master.  Anticipate that there will be problems even before the session begins and know how you will respond with art if those problems do arise.  If you use the information in the preceding paragraph to help guide your selection of materials, you’re already taking proactive measures to minimize the likelihood that you’ll need Plan B.  Even so, make sure Plan B’s in your back pocket!


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan January 2012

About the Image on This Page

This is a thumbnail of Arcane Art, posted to The Public Domain website by Mitch Featherston in 2012. Click here for more information.