Exploding with Worry

Maya’s journey through bullying

By Shireen Ya’ish, Art Psychotherapist and Founder of Kaynouna Arab Art Therapy Center

Maya’s mother contacted me when her eight-year-old daughter started having severe anger problems at home that were accompanied by fear of going to school and a recent inability to sleep alone.

Maya was being bullied by her only friend and had difficulties accepting and understanding that her best friend was being cruel to her in front of their whole class.

Maya would not speak at first and instead chose to write down what she was going through:

‘Haya is not my friend anymore’    

‘I miss Haya’

‘Haya makes fun of me’

‘Why is my friend doing this?’

I respected her inability to verbalise her feelings or her experience and replied by writing back: we had a dialogue on paper for the first three sessions until Maya eventually felt less threatened by my presence.

Inside My Head

The first two months of Art Therapy sessions revolved around Maya blaming herself for her best friend Haya’s behaviour and often expressing the need to win her back. Maya had difficulties accepting that the trust she had built with Haya was being used against her and she was in denial of how much heartbreak Haya was causing her. Maya’s fears in school were materialising at home in the form of daily anger tantrums and climbing into her parent’s bed at night because of her worries.

I asked her to show me what her head felt like and watched her as she drew it and filled it with dried paint pieces that we recycled together. We discussed each piece as I watched her layer pieces on session after session; she explained that each worry was a different colour. The ‘Inside My Head’ art piece took Maya four sessions to finish. When I wondered aloud why we could not see the head anymore, she told me it was because her head was exploding with worry. The worry that was most visible in her art piece was her fear of bullying and her shock at the ability of another child to hurt her feelings. She had trouble understanding why a friend she trusted would betray her.

Inside My Heart: Frightened Face 

Maya’s art piece of a screaming face expresses her fear and anger; it was the first time that we were able to discuss what bullying actually felt like. Maya had chosen to use a plastic mask to paint over and we both noticed that the paint peeled over time. We discussed that the peeling paint could mean that her fears were peeling away as well. The process of making the ‘Inside my Heart: Frightened Face’ art piece and the discussion that followed helped Maya verbalise feelings that were difficult to express in the beginning and to make her fears less threatening.

Superhero Gloves

Maya had started painting her hands during our sixth month and, when I mentioned that they looked like gloves, she explained that they were superhero gloves. Maya loved superheroes and I decided to follow her direction and use her superhero gloves to build on concepts of self-empowerment and self-confidence. I wondered about the powers her superhero gloves provided her with and we discussed flying, strength and self-protection. I had noted that her gloves could be easily washed off and asked how we could make her gloves more resilient to survive. I also wondered if her gloves had the power to protect her from bullying and if they could mend her heart.

Maya took my note about the gloves being fragile and decided to use clay over the next three sessions to make gloves that were strong enough to survive. They were ‘our secret’. She expressed her need to keep these gloves a secret because of their power to protect her against bullying in school and to keep her safe in her bedroom at night. We decided to only share the power of the gloves with her mother and asked her to help Maya keep them in her bedroom next to her bed. Maya started to imagine wearing them while she was at school and she described how safe and strong she felt wearing them. During our seventh month of sessions, she happily told her mother and I how she used the gloves to stop Haya’s bullying by telling her that she was being mean and that it was not nice when she hurt her feelings. The gloves had the ability to internalize feelings of self-empowerment, self-confidence and resilience.

In our 10 months of Art Therapy we validated Maya’s frightened emotions and helped her recognise that the experience of bullying had hurt her feelings and made her feel threatened in school and scared to sleep in her own bed at home. We used our art therapy journey to establish the need to have more than one friend and to understand that Maya was not to blame for being bullied. We also discussed extensively the need to be able to trust again, make new friends and to build a positive image self-image.

Bullying causes powerful feelings that need validating. We need to recognize that children who have experienced bullying have real fears and often are intimidated and threatened by their own feelings. We need to give children who have experienced bullying the time to express, process and understand these difficult feelings or else they will seep under their skin and follow them into adulthood.