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Using the Arts with Sexual Assault Victims:
Learning more about the Strength Tree with Lynne McGuire, Sexual Assault Counsellor, Australia

by Karen Adler,
ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy


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Lynne McGuire is a testament to the value and validity of mid-life career changes. Like many people, Lynne went back to University to pursue studies in an area which gave her personal satisfaction. Lynne had worked for much of her adult life in the hospital system in a variety of interesting roles. Working as receptionist for a child psychologist sparked her interest in counselling and it was this area of study that she chose to pursue at University.

At the conclusion of her studies, Lynne did her student placement at Laurel House, Sunshine Coast’s foremost orgainisation dealing with sexual assault/abuse. It was while working at Laurel House that Lynne discovered one of the primary tools she uses to work with her clients – the Strength Tree.

The idea behind the Strength Tree is – as with Art Therapy in general – to make visible and tangible that which is invisible and therefore difficult to grasp.  Lynne encourages the client to think about all that trees represent in the external world – growth, the withstanding of storms, dieback/regrowth, seasons, being earthed, having roots, branching out, their beauty and grace. Strength Trees are made from strips of fabric, pieces of wire, string, beads, feathers. Lynne provides clients with the materials for their Strength Tree and encourages them to make their trees as decorative as possible.

From an art therapy perspective, this is mindfulness made visible. It allows the client to go within to identify their strengths and how/when these strengths have been part their lives. To be able to move from their inner world to the external world and create a symbol of these strengths is a source of empowerment for the client. The client is then able to place their Strength Tree where it can be seen every day to remind them of their strengths, how far they have come, what they have learned along the way. It becomes an external point of reference which can move the person away from dwelling on the sexual assault or abuse to a place which shows them a stronger sense of self, survival skills, progress from the past to the present.

Lynne works with Carl Rogers’ client-centred approach in her counselling, allowing the client to use the tools with which she provides them in ways that suit their personalities. She mentions one client who saw herself as having been stripped bare and dealing with being in a raw state who chose not to wrap her Strength Tree with fabric. Instead, she wove and twisted wire over wire so that it looked like rough, gnarled bark. Although she’d identified her strengths beforehand, she chose not to hang them off the tree. At the end of her time with Lynne, the client decided not to take the tree home with her, considering it to have done its work.

Lynne notes that for victims of sexual abuse, sometimes it’s impossible to take that first step into goal setting until they feel they deserve to get somewhere. Lynne has seen that most people who’ve been traumatised by sexual abuse have had their sense of self so badly eroded that they have nowhere to go. This state of having no energy or power to go anywhere, of being frozen or immobilised by what has happened, can lead to a suicidal thoughts.

The Strength Tree is a way for Lynne to show her clients that it’s their inner resources, what’s good about them, that defines them rather than an event which was outside their control. Transforming frozen energy and debilitating thought patterns into the making of something symbolic of strength and regrowth is an empowering gift to give a client.

For clients who are unable to identify any strengths, Lynne uses Signature Bears made of calico. She asks the client to take the bear on a visit to friends, relatives, neighbours and ask these people to write on the bear what they like about them.

This has several advantages for the client. For many people, the tendency after a trauma is to shut-down and shut-off from people. The resulting isolation can make it more difficult to reach out for help. The taking of something fun and child-related back into their world helps them re-establish themselves as they were before the trauma.

The Signature Bear is divided into segments – the torso as the strongest part of the body which includes the backbone, is where the strengths are written; legs provide support so this is where the names of supporters, dead or alive, real or imaginary, go; arms are our way of giving comfort so this is where the feel-good things appear – music, coffee with a friend, your dog, chocolate, anything that gives a heart-lift.

One client who was facing a difficult court session to do with her rape case, chose to write affirmations on her Bear and to take it to court with her. When asked by the judge in a belittling way why she had a stuffed toy with her, the client replied that it had some things on it she needed to remember and just hugged the bear a little harder. Lynne’s way of counselling sexual assault victims enables the invisible to be made more tangible so that clients have something that comes from their imagination and internal support systems to work with.

©Karen Adler, 2011


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About the Author

Karen Adler, ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy, is a Transpersonal Art Therapist, an artist, writer and researcher. She is a firm believer in the inherent healing qualities of the Arts. She has run art therapy workshops for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, self-harming behaviour, eating disorders, for post-flood and cyclone trauma and for people seeking to bring about positive change in their lives. Karen also uses Art Therapy to help in the resolution of her own life difficulties and is continually surprised by the insight it brings. 
Contact Karen at karenadler222@gmail.com or karenadler@allthingshealing.com.






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