Warhol project hopes to help kids cope with trauma

| Monday, May 28, 2012, 1:35 p.m.

Experiencing traumatic events -- like the death of a loved one, accidents and violent crimes -- causes pain and struggle for an adult.

Imagine, then, how it feels for children, who can't express themselves and cope in the same way.

A new program starting in June aims to help traumatized kids express themselves and heal through art that focuses on the human face. The yet-to-be-named pilot program is a collaborative effort between the Andy Warhol Museum and Allegheny General Hospital's Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents. The project is funded by the Staunton Farm Foundation and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Pittsburgh-area kids ages 7 to 17 who have developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can participate in the program, which is based on a technique for educating children with autism, who can have difficulty reading facial expressions.

Tresa Varner, the Warhol's curator of education and interpretation, says children dealing with trauma often have difficulty reading expressions, too. For instance, if a child has an abusive parent who is usually angry and volatile, that child might see someone else's innocuous expression as also hostile when it isn't.

"The focus would be on helping them to better appreciate what goes into certain kinds of facial expressions, so they can read and respond to faces in a more adaptive way," says Anthony Mannarino, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents on the North Side.

"It's wide open, because we've never done anything like this before," Mannarino says about the Warhol project. "We're hoping that it will be another advance in the work potentially, or ... bring another layer of help for this group of kids beyond what they're getting now."

Children in the program will examine the Warhol's photos, drawings and paintings of people's faces, and analyze the expressions on them, while educators explain the body language and meaning behind the expressions. Then, they will go into a studio for a hands-on workshop, and create their own facial portraits using techniques like silk-screen printing, digital video and animation.

Art can be therapeutic for kids and adults seeking an outlet, Varner says.

"It's a process when you're making something -- when you are focusing your hands and the craft, and you're creating something," Varner says. "Your conscious self is very busy, and it becomes relaxing. There's something very relaxing when you are set to a task and you're able to lose yourself in that moment.

"You have this end product," Varner says. "It allows you to really focus on what's in front of you ... and leave everything else behind."

Mannarino sees as many as 400 new families each year who have been through traumatic events, such as a death in the family, a fire or accident, sexual abuse or domestic violence. Through the psychotherapy the center provides, professionals encourage the kids -- ranging from toddlers to older teens -- to talk about what they've experienced.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents looks similar to PTSD in soldiers returning from war, Mannarino says. Younger and older kids can experience nightmares and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the trauma. Kids can be irritable, have a hard time sitting still, and suffer from insomnia.

Kimberly Blair, a child psychologist and director of the Matilda Theiss Therapeutic Nursery and Preschool in the Hill District, says toddlers and preschoolers dealing with trauma may show increased aggression, fear of strangers, and clingy behavior with caregivers.

The young children might cry more and regress to behaviors like thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. Younger children, who can't easily talk about what they experienced, often act it out in play: For instance, with toy cars, they may re-enact a car crash. This kind of play can help them process some of the anxiety they feel, says Dianne Jandrasits, a Matilda child psychologist.

"Kids learn and process everything through play," Jandrasits says.

It is critical, whenever possible, for the child's caregivers to provide as much of a sense of security and routine as they can, as the family recovers from a trauma, Jandrasits and Blair say.

Art, like that featured with the Warhol project, can provide kids a good outlet to express their feelings and do something fun, Jandrasits says.

Mannarino says that, no matter what the trauma, kids are resilient and with help most do heal from traumas and move forward with their lives.

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