Counselors and psychologists must now address an unspeakable tragedy and begin the healing process with the Newtown, Conn. children. Experienced counselors and psychologists will do their best to heal but their role will be extremely difficult.

One of the many problems they face will be the addressing of the different emotional and/or cognitive developmental levels of the children they counsel. That is, young children have different levels in how they express themselves emotionally and cognitively, particularly in how they deal with grief and death. Some children are more verbal and feel comfortable speaking to adults about grief, while others are non-verbal and will internalize their grief.

The key factor in the success of the counseling is the approach the counselor uses to address the children’s pain or grief.

For example, most experienced counselors understand these differences, which is why they use different modes of therapy to reach individuals, especially young children dealing with death. Fortunately, many grief counselors use the expressive arts, such as art therapy as their main strategy for helping children deal with the often-unspeakable thoughts and/or emotions associated with death.

According to art therapist Mary Gambarony of the Riverview Medical Center: “whether it’s drawing, painting, sculpture or any other medium, it’s always been a powerful way to express emotions without words. It allows children to take the pain and to take the sadness, take the frustration, take the questions, and put it outside of themselves and that’s very healing in itself to get it out of you, and put it outside of themselves and that’s very healing in itself to get it out of you, put it on something objective in front of you and be able to look at it. “ She adds, regardless of its presentation, they‘re all symbols of loss and pain that children often have trouble expressing. The art gives voice to their grief.

What is often not discussed are the causes of this healing process and the continued need for expressive arts or art therapy in grief counseling, especially with children. Art can stimulate multiple areas of the brain, particularly when one is attempting to heal a child’s psyche associated with a major tragedy such as death. When a counselor attempts to help a child speak about a tragedy, he often focuses only on the verbal or linguistic areas of the brain, which can negate those children whose cognitive processes are more non-verbal. Conversely, forcing only the non-verbal expression does not address the needs of children who can be verbally expressive. Even for the verbal child, discussion does not lead to expressing the depth of grief, while an artistic expression can often allow the experience.

The effectiveness of art therapy is that it addresses both sides of the brain or the child’s verbal or non-verbal intelligences and emotions. This is particularly true with the right side of the brain, considered our visual and more emotional side. Although we use both sides of our brain simultaneously, some children (especially  girls) have an edge because the corpus collossum, a strip that runs down the center of the brain is larger in girls, which allows the two halves of the brain to crosstalk, an indication of why art therapy can be so effective for girls. For boys, whose corpus collossum is smaller, they do not have the luxury of being able to crosstalk as effectively. However, art therapy can specifically stimulate the right side or visual – emotional side of the boy’s brain, which allows for the grief to be looked at openly, thus giving voice to their grief.

Whatever expressive arts a counselor chooses in dealing with a child’s grief, the key is to understand that beyond the different developmental levels of a child’s grieving emotions, there are major factors involved in the healing process that go beyond simply talking about a tragic experience. The brain is far more complex, and as such, needs expressive forms of therapy that will address multiple areas of he brain for the unspeakable and/or speakable wound to be healed.

David Sortino, a Graton resident, is a psychologist and retired teacher. Email him at or contact him through his blog.