How to Help Children Overcome Trauma Using Salt Dough Crafts

Clients with a history of severe trauma often need help overcoming symptoms of post-traumatic stress that can arise unexpectedly and overwhelm them. Once triggered, these individuals can feel that they are reliving a traumatic event all over again. They may experience flashbacks to the traumatic event, have nightmares, panic, or dissociate from the present moment and their own bodies, as they might have done at the time of the trauma. For these individuals, anchors can provide a much-needed sense of safety, relief, and stabilization. Anchors can be any object, place, person, or activity that helps a person distinguish between the present moment and the moment in which they experienced the trauma. These items help ground or, well, anchor a person in the present moment. Anchors helps people identify the fact that though they may feel a sense of danger or dread in their bodies, that they in fact did survive the trauma and are safe.

Anchors help a person by focusing attention on an object, person, or activity completely unrelated to the events of their trauma, or that may not have even been a part of his or her life at that time. When trauma symptoms are triggered, he can engage in the anchoring activity, reach out to the anchoring person, or mindfully hold and touch the anchoring object while using other learned coping strategies (e.g., deep breathing or relaxation) and self-talk that reminds them “That was then – this is today and I am safe.”

This activity is a fun activity for kids, teens, or even adults, to start to talk about the concept of anchors and how anchors can help them to manage their trauma symptoms. It will also give clients an opportunity to make a small object that they can use as an anchor if they wish.

You will need:

  • Salt dough made from flour, salt, and water (see a simple recipe here)
  • Cookie cutters, chains, key rings, paint and brushes (optional)

 Steps:

  • Mix up the ingredients (flour, salt, and water) into dough. This recipe will make a fair bit, so feel free to split it up and save some for a few days for other clients.
  • Have clients mould the dough into a shape that has meaning and gives a sense of safety for them. You may want to take some time to discuss and identify what shape might be helpful to them; some ideas might be a physical anchor, a leaf, a jewel, a circle, a star, a flower. They may want to make a pendant that they can wear on a rope or a chain, put an object on a key ring, or just form the dough into a specific shape that they can touch when they are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Bake the salt dough object or send it home with the client or her parents for them to bake.
  • At a later session (or at home), the child can paint or decorate the object if she chooses.

Some things to keep in mind with this activity are to make the anchor object small enough that the client can carry it with them if they choose. An anchor should also be an item that gives the client a sense of calm and peace and should not be associated in any way with the memory of the trauma, so that it will not trigger or worsen anxiety symptoms. In that regard, one awesome thing about this activity is that the client will end up with an object that did not exist them at the time of trauma (and it can therefore help the client reassure herself that the traumatic event is in the past and that she did in fact survive it).

One additional consideration is whether the child or youth would like to make more than one anchor (e.g., one to put on the nightstand at home, one for the living room, one for the school desk, and one for the backpack) so that they know they always have their safe object on hand and don’t have to worry about carrying it with them all the time..

Other Ways to Use in the Counselling Session

While this exercise is intended specifically for those kids or youth who have experienced trauma, anchor objects can also be useful for clients who are dealing with other overwhelming anxiety symptoms, including clients who experience panic attacks, agoraphobia, other specific phobias, and even separation anxiety. With separation anxiety, for example, a salt dough anchor could make a great transitional object between home and other settings to help remind the child that he is safe and will be reunited with his caregiver in a little while. For other issues, the anchor could serve as a reminder of coping strategies the child has learned.

Whatever the client’s presenting problem, kids will have a lot of fun creating and decorating their anchors. The objects can be a positive reminder of their safety, their coping strategies, and all that they achieved in their time in counselling.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments box:

How could you use this resource with your clients? How have you found anchors or safety objects to be useful in your work with children or teens?

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Carey EmmersonHow to Help Children Overcome Trauma Using Salt Dough Crafts

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