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Children Coping with Divorce: Use of Transitional Objects in Art Therapy

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

When faced with a transitional period, such as changing schools, diagnosis of a medical illness, moving, and/or parental divorce, it is common for children to experience a loss of a sense of control and stability. When we specifically focus on the impact of parental divorce on the child, we begin to recognize changes in self-esteem, signs of grieving, feelings of shame, self-blame, depressed mood, anger, anxiety, fear of abandonment, and fluctuations in academic performance. Of course, how a child responds to a divorce and becomes impacted by a divorce can stem from different factors and these should be considered when evaluating the child’s needs.

What we can understand in most cases is that a child may have to find a way to adapt to a change in household, living situation, weekly routine, and scheduled time with each parent depending on the custody arrangements. For some children depending on their age, the divorce can be confusing and sudden. For some children, the experience can be internalized and promote a sense of self-blame, in which the child might consciously or unconsciously believe that they were not enough to keep the family together. Feelings stemming from an experience of perceived abandonment most often come from shame and fuel thoughts based on this fear of being left alone or put to the side. A fear of abandonment can at times look like a regression in attachment or an increase in separation anxiety, in which a child experiences heightened difficulties when faced with separation from a parent.

Courtney McCullough, an adolescent and children’s therapist coordinator in New York, wrote an article reflecting her own experience in working with a child experiencing parental separation and divorce. In the case study, she outlined how a 12 year old boy was able to incorporate objects from home into his art therapy sessions as a way to promote a sense of control, autonomy and security when transitioning between home and therapeutic environment. The article also discussed how incorporating the imagery and symbolism of familiar objects into the art process provided a space to mend these transitional spaces together and provide a larger picture of what the child was experiencing on an emotional level. Over time in working with the art therapist, the child was able to improve his assertiveness and attachment relationships with his family.

When we think about transitional objects, these may be objects that we carry with us from one setting to another, one experience to another. As children, these objects might reflect a favored toy, a stuffed animal, a doll, a favorite car or train, or a blanket. The famed Peanuts character, Linus, is known for carrying around his blue blanket wherever he goes, a security blanket. In a way, that is what the transitional objects are meant to provide, a sense of safety and comfort in an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation or period of change. Transitional objects can also be used by older children, teenagers, young adults and adults, in the form of ‘lucky socks’, a favorite sweatshirt or hoodie, a favorite backpack or bag, a water bottle or coffee mug, and even our cell phone can help us as we transition from home to work to school.

In art therapy, we have the ability to work with these transitional objects by creating art that reflects their imagery or symbolism or even attempts to reproduce them in different formats. Working on a project for an extended period of time can help with transitions, as you or your child will have the opportunity to continually work on and make changes to the piece each time that they have a session. The transitional objects can also be used to role play and create personal or imaginary narratives that reflect real emotions, dilemmas and challenges that an individual is facing.

Consider art therapy sessions for your child if you are navigating current issues relating to separation or divorce and believe this form of self-expression can be helpful to your child in identifying and expressing important emotions and thoughts.

Article cited in today’s blog:

McCullough, Courtney (2009). A Child’s Use of Transitional Objects in Art Therapy to Cope with Divorce, Art Therapy, 26:1, 19-25.

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