Dawn is 7-years-old. When she meets with her therapist at Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, she plays at the rice table and in the sand tray, choosing a toy baby animal as her main character. During her play, she positions the figurine as locked away and not given any food. Sometimes she postures the plaything as breaking out to get food. Other times she pretends the toy baby animal is rescued by other animals and given food.
Art and play are key to the therapy approach in the Center’s C.O.O.L. program (Children Overcoming the Obstacles in Life). At her young age, Dawn’s traumatic experiences have far surpassed her vocabulary. Dawn had been removed from her home three times before she was five years old, through no fault of her own but due to her parents’ substance abuse and chronic mental illness. She awaits her permanency hearing during which the court will terminate parental rights, enabling Dawn to be adopted by the only real family she has ever known – the guardians who brought her to the Center for counseling.
Dawn’s playtime choices help her express themes of abandonment, abuse, neglect and rescue. Her selections also help her express anger. For example sometimes Dawn assigns a figurine to portray a “mean beast” who “wrecks everything and takes all the food.”
The counselor interprets Dawn’s choices and creates a therapy plan. The counselor provides Dawn with a special drawer where the child collects and keeps things safely – a jar of glitter, a small doll with a blue cape, several toy baby wild cats, a picture of Dawn with her therapist. Dawn decorates her drawer with her name so that no one else can get into her special place. Dawn is learning what it means to feel safe.
The Center serves 700 children and adolescents annually through its innovative C.O.O.L. approach, which views most youth behavior as a meaningful attempt to communicate inner life. Thanks to generous donors, we will continue to help vulnerable children and adolescents access quality mental health services.
*Note: Dawn is a composite character created from real counseling scenarios at Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center. Dawn’s photo is a stock image.
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