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How Children Process Pain — Pain News Network

Last updated: 03-01-2020

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How Children Process Pain — Pain News Network

Imagery and drawing are ways to help children effectively process their pain. The symbolic meaning of an image can be very revealing. Sigmund Freud described how imagery can reflect the feelings, attitudes and qualities of our environment.

Hermann Rorschach famously built on that idea to develop the Rorschach (or inkblot) test. The concept of the Rorschach test is that through drawing or interpreting images, children can convey the emotional loads they carry.

The first collection of children’s drawings of pain was published in 1885, well before Rorschach developed his test. It appeared in an article written by art reformer Ebenezer Cookie and illustrated how the stages of children’s development corresponded to the clarity of their drawings.

All trauma has the potential to affect a child’s development and perspective. This does not mean that all trauma damages the brain or renders a child unable to manage stress. In fact, trauma is a life experience that children must learn to manage without compromising their emotional development. That sets the stage for being able to handle pain effectively as they mature.

In his book “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, “Your brain was wired in such a way when it evolved, it was primed to learn quickly from bad experiences but not so much from the good ones.”

That explains why traumatic memories so often stick in our brains while positive memories seem to slip away.

“It’s an ancient survival mechanism that turned the brain into Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive,” Hanson concludes.

On the day of my granddaughter's injury, my daughter called and asked for help. Fortunately, my wife and I live nearby, so I rushed over immediately. Even before I entered her home, I began to wonder whether the injury my granddaughter experienced would be more Teflon than Velcro.

Usually when I arrive, my granddaughter calls my name and races to give me a hug. That didn't happen on the day she fell. Instead, she was clinging to her mother, who was trying and failing to console her and "make it all better."

It was obvious to me that my granddaughter had a fracture and needed to be taken to the emergency room.

After the orthopedic surgeon treated and cast her arm, my granddaughter experienced minimal pain. It was a bump in the road she would one day forget. Or would she? And should she?

Two weeks later, my granddaughter was at preschool, where the class was studying cloud formations. Each student was asked to draw clouds and explain what their Rorschach images meant to them.

Below, you can see my granddaughter's drawing, which she made by applying blobs of ink to the paper and folding it in half. Her interpretation of that image was that the clouds were “my broken bones.”

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