As soon as I began running art projects with survivors of sexual assault I also began hearing stories about how difficult family life can be for them. Sexual abuse – especially childhood sexual abuse – changes who you are and how you engage in the intimate life of a family and in the bigger life of the world beyond. For children, abuse has the devastating potential to affect how you learn, trust, process, how you manage your emotions and relationships, and later on how you parent.
I observed that many participants who had been abused during their childhood had missed out on learning to do tasks in a step-by-step way, progressing naturally from the simple to the difficult. As one counsellor described it to me: many have not been taught how to learn and master the easy jig-saw puzzle before attempting a harder one. Many also missed out on encouragement and a belief in them from their parents. So they are doomed to ‘fail’, manage carry this feeling throughout their lives. As adults, tasks are started and never finished because these children haven’t learn how to break tasks into manageable steps. This ends up in a wardrobe full of half-finished projects, and a self-belief that they are ‘hopeless’ and ‘a failure’.
A similar thing happens with their emotions too . The effect of the abuse and the circumstances surrounding it can mean that children don’t really know how to name and manage their emotions. Many have trouble even feeling them at all. This can mean that these survivors, as children,and as adults, find it difficult to express their feelings. Frustration can end up looking like anger or a tantrum for example, feeling unsupported or alone can easily end up as despair.
Parents who were themselves abused as children can really find it difficult to parent their own children well. SECASA (South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault) received funding from the Flora and Frank Leith Foundation to run a creative project called TOTEM with families who have been affected by sexual assault to help families do fun and creative projects together. TOTEM helps families build and develop their strengths in working together, expressing their feelings, having fun together, and learning how to tackle some challenging creative tasks by breaking them into smaller steps.
We had a great time making mosaics, wooden sculptures, painting, postcards, books and lots more.
In our 2015 TOTEM project we added something new – FOOD!
I love sitting down at a dinner table to a delicious home-cooked, tasty meal. I especially love sharing these meals with others. We know that enjoying a meal with someone else is a great step in helping our mental wellbeing, and if that meal is healthy then our physical wellbeing is being nurtured too.
In all the community art projects we run, tasty and healthy food is provided. In this year’s TOTEM project we decided it was time to make our own! And to make the bowls and mosaic placemats to make a totally beautiful meal.
Five families have joined our TOTEM project – this year called AT OUR TABLE. As it was the end of summer we started with a simple snack – fruit kebabs – which are lovely to look at, make and eat. Thinking about doing things step by step – this recipe was the first, and so it was EASY. Children and parents worked together to cut up the fruit, and for some, this meant learning to use a sharp knife safely and for parents to feel confident in their child’s ability.
At the end of the preparation, we tidied up the table, cleared away the scraps and all sat down to share the fruit kebabs together. Here is the recipe FRUIT KEBABS. I didn’t take any pictures unfortunately, but there are lots on the net to discover.
In the second week we made Monkey Tail sandwiches. (MONKEY WHEELS recipe) We had a basic recipe to follow, and we brought extra ingredients such as capers, chilli, rocket, pesto, to try out as well. We discussed garnishing the plate so the meal looks great and inviting too. Participants experiments with new foods and tastes, and we all enjoyed sitting around the table together sharing the food.
If you are interested in understanding a bit more about how abuse affects families, Bruce Perry, John Briere, Bessel van der Kolk are who work in this area and explain it well. You can find articles, books and videos via the net and at the library.