NOTE: As with every workshop in this topic, these activities can benefit both kids and adults, individually or together, one-on-one or in groups. Depending on who you’re working with at a given time, adapt or omit activities as you see fit—you know your kids and families best!

Traumatic memories are often stored in feelings, images, and other senses, not in words. It can be tough for kids coping with the effects of trauma to find the right words to explain how they’re feeling inside, and the younger they are, the harder it is. But there are lots of ways kids can access and express feelings without using language.

  1. 1

    I Can Let My Feelings Out


    Nonverbal kids might need a progression of several strategies as they move toward more sophisticated forms of self-expression. (Kids may too young to have the vocabulary to release their feelings, or when they have experienced traumatic experiences that prevent them from doing so.)

    Watch this video in which Sophia helps Rosita release her anger. Ask families if they can identify how Sophia helps Rosita express her feelings. Ask “What else might you do to release big feelings?”

    Then, talk with parents about how Sophia helped Rosita. What words does she use? How does her voice sound? What does her body language look like? She:

    • Notices and acknowledges her feelings and reassures her they’re okay
    • Reminds her that it’s good to express her feelings
    • Encourages her to express the full force of her anger (reassuring Rosita that, as the adult, she can handle it)
    • Suggests other ways to express other big feelings
    • Provides a comforting lap when Rosita is done

    Finally, point out to adults that self-expression with music, dramatic play, movement, and visual arts can be a powerful tool in healing. On chart paper, brainstorm together reasons why creative expression might help. (When working with kids, you might simply say, “Sometimes we don’t have the words to say how we feel. But we can find other ways to help us understand our feelings, and share them with others. That can help our bodies and minds relax.Then we can start using words.”)

  2. 2

    Move it Out


    Next, guide kids toward more verbal self-expression. Watch Grover talk through his frustration as he “moves it out.” Then share this three-step strategy for coping with anger and frustration.

  3. 3

    Self-Expression…Without Words

    When working with adults, guide them to identify the benefits of creative self-expression:

    • It builds confidence. Mental health lies in feelings of competence, but trauma can wipe out a child’s sense of “I can do it.” When a supportive community of caring adults gives kids a space and a platform to show their work, they can feel pride and accomplishment.
    • It allows for self-expression. Words often don’t do the job in working through difficult feelings, thoughts, and memories. Creative self-expression helps kids express what words just can’t. If a traumatic event or experience happened before the child was verbal at all, that trauma is often stored in that child’s memory as sensations, symbols, and mental images.
    • It lowers stress. When engaged creatively, kids often breathe more slowly, their blood pressure lowers, and their bodies relax. Creative engagement also causes certain areas of the brain to release hormones called endorphins, which produce a sense of expansion, connection, and relaxation.
    • It supports healthy brain development. Creativity is a process that engages many areas of the brain.
    • It helps build self-understanding. As children create poems, songs, dances, or paintings, they become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, even when they lack the language to describe those experiences.


    Malchiodi, Cathy A. Expressive Therapies. Guilford Publications, 2013.

    Patrik, Juslin N. “What Does Music Express? Basic Emotions and beyond.” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013).

    Perry, Bruce D. “Resilience: Where Does It Come From?” New York Life – Children & Grief, April 2006.

    Phelps, Don. “Therapeutic Use of Expressive Arts With Children.” Social Work Today.