POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

Review: Conversation Starters: Working with Children & Adolescents After Trauma

Published on May 20, 2023 by Siobhán Nelligan


Conversation Starters for Working with Children and Adolescents After Trauma: Simple Cognitive and Arts-Based Activities by Dawn D’Amico (Jessica Kingsley, 2022) presents a range of creative and conversational prompts for use in therapeutic contexts. The book is intended for use by “clinicians, school psychologists, teachers, aid workers, and graduate students” and it is stated in the introduction that there is an expectation that those using the book will have a working knowledge of trauma. The purpose of the present book review is to evaluate its application as a resource for creative arts therapists of varying modalities such as art, music, drama, and dance/movement therapy.

Conversation Starters contains close to 100 activities which are divided into one of two categories: “Coping” and “Positive Thinking”, with the former presented as a prerequisite to the latter.

The activities are intended for use with children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 years who have experienced trauma. Each activity is outlined using the following captions: "Purpose", which provides a brief description of the goals or intended outcomes; "What you will need", which presents a list of recommended materials to assist the process of exploration (usually “green” and recycled materials); and "Activity", which offers a brief instruction on how to implement the activity. D’Amico then provides case study examples of using the activity with both a child and adolescent client. This helps to situate each activity within its intended context.

The activity suggestions in Conversation Starters are primarily directive in nature and may be particularly useful to creative arts therapists seeking novel ways to address pertinent issues more candidly with their clients. Creative arts therapists of all modalities usually favour non-directive approaches which facilitate the emergence of a client’s organic process. However, the complexities of trauma often necessitate a balance of non-directive and directive approaches, including a need for activities that can anchor clients during moments of dysregulation or shift the process beyond moments of perceived impasse.

Many of the activities in this book present avenues for therapists to introduce novel themes or to expand on existing themes that have emerged organically during the therapeutic process. In this regard, Conversation Starters offers a treasure trove of ideas on which therapists of all modalities can draw during such moments.  

At first glance, this book may appeal primarily to art therapists, as the majority of the activities involve the use of eco-friendly art materials and could be readily applied in an art therapy context. However, given that the book is aimed at professionals from diverse backgrounds, there is potential for the activities to be integrated by creative arts therapists of varying modalities. Furthermore, the simple layout and presentation of instructions contribute to the book’s overall accessibility. Some of the activities presented require no physical materials and could therefore be applied by therapists across the board. For example, conversational prompts such as “When bad feelings come” and “On track or lost” offer opportunities for verbal reflection on specific themes while primarily emphasising the use of therapeutic presence. However, a trained creative arts therapist could choose to introduce such themes through a creative exercise if the client’s process necessitated it. “Bubble pop”, “Gratitude” and “ Something Beautiful”, are further examples of activities that require minimal physical materials to support grounding, relaxation, and feelings of safety.

Although the use of art materials is prominent in the book, there are a smaller number of activities directly applicable to other creative modalities. For example, although presented as art activities, prompts such as “Superhero” or “Stuck in the Muck” appear suitable for adaptation in a dramatherapy context, whereas “What kind of music are you today” could be applied in a music therapy context.

The variety of content presented offers novel ideas for those interested in broadening their therapeutic repertoire beyond their chosen primary modality.

Additionally, many of the activities appear suitable for use as “warm-ups” or precursors to engaging through music, drama or movement. D’Amico does not specify a recommended duration for the activities presented which leaves it open for therapists to decide whether an activity is most appropriately used as a warm-up or exploration of a central theme.  

In addition to supporting the therapeutic process, some activity suggestions appear particularly useful for exploring resources that clients can access in their day-to-day lives outside of the therapy room. For example, “What do we do when we get scared” presents an opening to begin identifying existing coping strategies and helpful figures in a young person’s life. “What does the heart need now” and “Safe heart” are examples of artistic exercises that encourage reflection on clients’ personal resources while identifying actionable steps that they can take in their lives.

Providing appropriate scaffolding and resources outside of the therapeutic space is an essential component of successful therapeutic work with children and adolescents and Conversation Starters presents many potential suggestions for commencing this exploration when the timing is right.

Although the book is divided into two distinct sections (i.e. “Coping” and “Positive thinking”), decisions around the timing of specific activities may be best determined by individual therapists in response to their client’s process of engagement.

In summary, the activities contained within this work are applicable for creative arts therapists of varying modalities. Creative arts therapists are all too aware of the utility of creative prompts for introducing or expanding on themes that emerge during the course of therapy. The use of metaphor often provides the dramatic distance necessary to support the verbal exploration of such themes, particularly where traumatic content is present. Therefore, while the book is not intended as a specific resource for creative arts therapists, D’Amico offers an array of practical and creative activity suggestions that would invariably prove useful in the context of creative arts therapies. Conversation Starters could prove itself a useful companion for creative arts therapists and is most likely to appeal to professionals who adopt an integrative approach to their work with children and adolescents.

Siobhán Nelligan


Siobhán is an IACAT-accredited Music Therapist with a wide range of clinical experience across public and private mental health sectors, disability services, and social care settings. Siobhán has a specialism in child and adolescent mental health and has worked extensively with children, youth, and families who have been through traumatic life experiences. Having completed further training in therapeutic play skills and creative mindfulness practices, she integrates a range of creative media into her work to suit the needs of individual clients. In addition to her clinical practice, Siobhán has published research on the roles of music and art therapy in supporting mental health recovery.