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Somatic and sensorimotor behaviour change therapies support childhood trauma: play, art and clay too!


Chris Storm is a sensorimotor art therapist, child centred play therapist and somatic experiencing practitioner whose desire to keep learning more offers hope and solutions that are trauma informed. Chris has experience working in many fields, from specialist teaching in schools to homelessness, family violence and the justice system. Not satisfied with how she was helping others and believing that she could be more useful, she set out to truly understand the brain and the body, immersing herself in numerous therapies. Chris outlines how some of these therapies work and when you might use them with your child. She has seen mute children start to talk, disregulated children reengage and children who are adopted or had a traumatic birth and start to life, start to repair their birth process. After all of her learning, it is the safe and sound protocol, a listening or auditory system that helps with calming and felt safety, that is Chris's favourite thing. It offers hope in achieving felt safety in a relatively short period of time, with a 5 hour core component, combined with specialist activation support (by a trained practitioner). Above all else, the work Chris does is child centred and fun, involving play, art and clay therapy. What more could a child wish for!

00:00 - Start 01:26 - Therapy is like building a house 03:08 - Play Therapy is child led and great for anxious children 07:05 - Rhythm of Regulation involves being curious about what we feel in our bodies 10:15 - Safe and Sound Protocol is great for trauma and social and emotional difficulties or inattention and focus (for children and teens on the spectrum). Can be the quick "fix" too! 14:35 - Somatic Experiencing is about gaining strength from your own inner resources and completing a response to a trauma 19:30 - Polyvagal Theory explains how we sense danger before our brain processes it and we can trick the senses into felt safety so that we can move on to a "what happened to you" approach to reprocess trauma 27:00 - Clay Field Therapy involves repetitive actions and touch to shift old patterns 32:40 - Sensorimotor Art Therapy is body focussed therapy ideal where memories cant be reached with words, as in developmental trauma  37:44 - Trauma Informed Therapy involves energetic action and resonancy, such as is obtained through whacking a bop bag with a pool noodle 43:04 - Frequency and how therapy meetings work and how we need to stay close to newborns. Coming back is an adult concept. 51:36 - Which therapy for which situation or child 1:00:35 - Every family not with a birth mother will have experienced trauma


This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings designed to capture lived experience and best practice research based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. We are a child safe organisation. We pay respects to elders past and present, acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Being able to learn from peers and connect with those who may help us is particularly important. Today we are discussing how to help the brain and body recover from trauma with Sensorimotor Art therapist Chris Storm.

Chris is a registered sensorimotor art therapist, child centred play therapist, somatic experiencing practitioner and registered counsellor whose desire to keep learning more about how to help others has led her down many pathways.  Chris had experience with youth justice, unemployment, homelessness, family violence, specialist teaching and always felt like she could be more useful. So this led her to further study, where she qualified as a sensorimotor art therapist and somatic experiencing practitioner. She rounded that out with a Masters in Experiential Learning Development, training in Deb Dana’s Rhythm of Regulation, a Polyvagal approach to regulation, and Stephen Porges Safe and Sound Protocol.

Welcome Chris. It sounds like you are someone that truly wants to understand the brain and the body, leaving no stone unturned.  Is there anything else that we should know about you and your approach to therapy?


Thankyou Id like to pay my respects to where I am sitting at the moment, the Wathaurong  people, part of the great Coolum nation down here in Victoria.

Its quite a mouthful to explain my training an studies.

Therapy is like building a house. You wouldn’t build a big 2 story house if the foundations weren’t sold I am the slab and from there you can go off in any direction because that helps to support their very base understanding of what they carry in their body.

As I’m multi modal trained this helps me to support them from what is it they need rather than what is it that’s wrong.

Reminds me of mathematics learning and building the foundation!


I wonder if you would like to tell us a little about each of these practices and how they work either individually or in conjunction with each other?

  • 03:32 Play Therapy - Trained in child centred play therapy. Tend to use this with younger children as play is the work of children. The play may offer insight into their anxieties, unresolved problems, emotions or trauma or can offer learning of new coping mechanisms or redirect inappropriate behaviour. It’s really important in this model that the play is child led. The ability to hold space with a child while they engage in play of their choosing, it may be the first time they have experienced that so it requires a really sound base of safety for that to occur. Increasing their felt sense of safety by doing different activities with them. In one session there can be a significant shift for some children. When I do a parent intake when I first start working with children I get the story about what’s been happening for the child. There may be a scenario painted that is indicating there is anxiety. It seems to be a good coverall word for what most children are going through. Then I bring the child into the playroom and introduce them to the space and explain what happens in that space and the expectations. The child will explore and do things and you can see them waiting for me to say don’t do that, put that down, be careful, which is often the experience of small children when going into a new space. When they work out its ok for me to touch that, or its ok for me to tip everything out on the floor, without picking up after myself, that there aren’t conditions on their play, with that freedom comes this ability to engage. When they return the parent or carer they are in a different place of regulation and more likely to engage back with the parent or carer. They will seem more content, happier and more likely to engage in eye contact back with the parent or carer. So I’ve seen children go from jumping around in the playroom to running back into the arms of the parent smiling. The parent or carer will be surprised because that wasn’t the child that they dropped off.
  • 07:05 Rhythm of Regulation - Deb Dana is the creator of the Rhythm of Regulation and is a clinician who applies Polyvagal Theory to relationships, mental health and trauma. This therapy involves being becoming more attuned to what the child body may be holding and supporting opportunities to work on aspects of self-regulation and co-regulation. Learning what you can engage with to help your system be in a safer place. An example of where this has been applied in my therapy is mapping the autonomic nervous system for a greater understanding of how one responds in each of the nervous system states. With children, it may be engaging in them being curious about what their feeling is in their body. The lovely flow that happens in life. Life is up and down, just like being a giant jellyfish. So being attuned to I have a sick feeling in my tummy and what do I need. (reminder of a time when having a sense of not wanting to go down a particular ski run, where the ski run shut down 5 minutes later). Trying to skill them up so they can do this. We all have this ability to listen to our bodies. Our body is designed to keep us safe. But sometimes on our journey we get interrupted in the ability to listen.
  • 10:15 Safe and Sound Protocol - My favourite thing to talk about! It’s a listening or auditory system. Helps with calming and felt safety and is particularly applicable to trauma, anxiety, behavioural regulation, social and emotional difficulties and inattention and focus. There are two versions. There is now a digital version involves three parts – connect (introductory program), core (same as previous hard copy program) and balance and can be done at home if it is a safe place for the client. When I deliver the SSP in clinic I focus on the core, which is a 5 hour listening program that kick starts the nervous system. If conditions are right, I deliver it for 1 hour a day for 5 consecutive days. The music impacts on the twitch muscles of the middle ear, supporting vagal toning that contributes to the neuroception of safety (Porges). It is very important that the “safe” part of Safe and Sound is adhered to.  One way this can be done is through meeting any eye contact during the session with kind eyes as eyes are an important component of social engagement. Social engagement occurs from the eyes up. Smiles and help and the tone of our voice. I have found it particularly useful with children and teens on the spectrum.  An example of this is one child I was supporting that was completely disengaged from family. After SSP, they were initiating social conversations, playing boardgames and laughing with family. They sound like small things, but if you have a disengaged child, this is gold and in such a short amount of time. You can tweak it to half hour or 15 minute blocks. Must be accompanied by a trained practitioner needs to support activation. Some clients contact me every year to do it. Two types of programs. Short term SSP and long-term FOCUS. The FOCUS program is a long term 40-60 sessions type program. So SSP is like the vitamin shot in the arm and FOCUS is the long term therapy that you can take your time with as you go through.
  • 14:35 Somatic Experiencing – This therapy is from the work of Peter Levine and is a journey of self-discovery of one’s own body where your actually drawing strength from your own inner resources to improve cognition and emotional function. Using your own felt sense in your body to support how you function in the world. It recognises that the body gets stuck as it remembers or re-experiences various situations. These situations could be things where there was an active response that was interrupted or unable to be completed. By getting in touch with that rupture in the response, and working to complete it or repair it, through using the felt sense and sensation, it enables how it can hold someone back to be removed. The adverse trauma can’t disappear, but you can take the sting out of it or take the hold it has over you away. Once you have processed all this stuff then you can then talk about the incident without it traumatising you. SE underpins most of the work I now do. Watching the childs physiology or really listening to what they are saying and not giving directives about what they have to do. So if they talk about feeling icky in their tummy, then there may be an exploration of ooh what does your tummy need. Or is there any place in the body that doesn’t feel icky and give them an example of the difference that has happened. I don’t tend to do pure SE with children. They all have somatic components to them. So how might they respond? I don’t really conduct talk therapy with children. Its more if they give me an invitation to go there.  So it’s more about gentle suggestions if they are doing something that needs some extra work. So if we are in the sand try it might be about noticing how the sand feels – cold, soft  Engaging with the hands and senses to work out what feels good for them and what doesn’t.
  • 19:30 Polyvagal based therapy in general is about working on the nervous system. The nervous system includes Autonomic nervous system has parasympathetic and sympathetic.
    • Autonomic nervous system – which is both a motor and sensory system.
    • Sympathetic nervous system and mobilisation- send messages to fight or flight
    • Parasympathetic nervous system consists of two parts, which a significant contribution Stephen Porges has made to understanding this part of our Vagus nerve. There is the dorsal vagus which is involved in immobilisation of the body such as responding to perceived life threat – sending blood and oxygen away from activation responses so your body shuts down, mostly based below the heart area, and specifically around the gut. Freeze or shut down. The second part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System is called the Ventral Vagus. From diaphragm up. Involved in social engagement and connection. So you need a felt sense of safety in order to engage in Ventral activation.
    • An important thing to remember in working with people who have been impacted by traumatic experiences. It can’t be activated unless people feel safe. Heart upwards – can’t engage unless people feel safe.  Establish an anchor – talk about something where just thinking about something that helps your face start to smile. If I notice them going into overwhelm, I can talk to them and will refer them back to that anchor, such as feel the beach, listen to the waves, feel the sun and the salty water, and get them to experience the things that gives them pleasure through their senses. If you experience things through all of your senses you can trick your body into thinking that it is actually there. Therefore activating the ventral. There is a model about flipping the lid where you physically cant access that thinking part of the brain. As a trauma based therapist, Polyvagal like SE underpins everything I do, I find supporting coregulation by being aware of my own regulation. Especially if they look like they are going to revert to their survival strategy that they have used in the past. In reality that danger is no longer present.  Our body senses the level of danger we are in before the brain attaches a story to it. In times of Covid for example where we are anxious, we might hear someone behind us at the supermarket coughing and spluttering. Our body recognises that, sends a message to the brain, we look around and we realise they are 1.5 metres away and we have a mask on, we will be ok. It’s not about what’s wrong with you it’s about what happened to you.
  • 27:00 Clay Field Therapy- This therapy is a Sensorimotor Art Therapy modality and involves a simple rectangular box of clay which the hands explore. This therapy involves repetitive movement and actions and through impulse, finding an active response that can then be satisfied. If they want to push the clay or punch it they can. They have control over their actions. This allows them to find ways to repair to the any rupture and which then can allow them to move forward. Very powerful. Im on the faculty of the Institute. Cornelia Albrecht has worked with the originator in Germany to bring it into the English speaking world. Cornelia is releasing a book soon on this, in which I wrote a chapter including this story I’m about to share with you. One child I worked with, after different things, working with clay and stuck his head into the clay and when he pulled his head out, he looked at me with great big beaming eyes. I looked at him with a welcome back to this space. He was able to symbolically find peace and attachment, replicating the birthing process that had not gone well for him. He did that in an environment where I was able to offer him care and acceptance. He had a traumatic childhood and was in kinship care. It was an opportunity to shift some of the patterning from having been put into a kinship or adoptive situation, which obviously also involves rejection from the birth family. When one is born and attachment to a birth parent isn’t available, something is missing which can often make it difficult to find peace and attachment as they grow. It’s a felt thing. He began with nest building with play therapy and finished with birthing simulation with clay. That was an opportunity to shift some of the old patterning. Holding and talking again with the necessary kind soft eyes with him in the process.  Often there can be a void or an anger and no idea what to do about it. Sometimes a guilt too.
  • 32:40 Sensorimotor Art Therapy - Essentially this is a body focussed therapy using a bottom up (how the muscles, heart rate, breathing shape our sense of being), rather than top-down approach (visualising and talking about it). It is therapy through drawing, painting or sculpting and it translates perfectly where memories can’t be reached with words, such as in developmental trauma or trauma under 5 years old. In a safe and trusting environment, the painful or dissociated structures of the past can be part of new sensorimotor experiences where self-esteem, self-worth and empowerment can begin to create new neurological pathways to bypass traumatic memories and restore wellbeing. I might do guided drawing, which Cornelia Albrecht has created also. Its drawing from the abstract sense using rhythm and regulation. For example, I might encourage a child to make a race track with the lazy gate and encourage them to drive around in it with their fingers or a little car. Can be done with shaving cream or in a sand tray using that shape. If that shape resonates with a child as calming it can help soothe that activation. (reminds me of rocking motion in a figure 8).  Cornelia has built on the assumption that different movements bring with them a different felt response in the body so she has identified several archetypical shapes that bring different responses, such as find your upright to get strength, and a whole lot in between. So with children with guided drawing it would be “well who wants to make a race track today”.
  • (sensorimotor psychotherapy Pat Ogden, a student of Peter Levine)
  • 37:44 Working from a trauma informed perspective is about finding an active response to complete the previous incomplete cycle. It is not about replacing a memory. For example, a child may use a pool noodle and a blow up bop bag. By using an energetic action, whacking the bag with the pool noodle, the impulse to do the fight has been answered. Resonancy comes back to the body. You don’t get that same resonance if hitting wood on wood or metal on metal. The energetic action has been completed. Lisa Dion and synergetic play therapy introduced me to this. If families have children with behaviour regulation problems, buy a pool noodle, cut it in half and see what happens. Hit the fence, the grass, somewhere they can get the response satisfied. Similar to working on behavioural regulation strategies where if one has a meltdown, for example finding strategies to answer the impulse and find a way to self sooth, like using the pool noodle activity to respond to the impulse to fight, is an active response to avoid the inappropriate action of hitting another.  Athletes may do this with boxing bags for example, as a way of directing and discharging emotions.  This is about noticing the body and what it needs to do to response to the impulses associated with these historical imprints, the old memories, implicitly held in the body.  Martial arts are a really good example of this. If we have a sore shoulder, pain in the gut or headaches, it may be that this is representative of something that is ‘stuck’ and we need to find a bodily way to release that stuckness. So with clay field, we might encourage them to poke it, squish it, take it out, build caves. All of it requires touch which speaks back into the body. A child can do the same thing over and over again and then not do it anymore because the impulse has been met.

43:04 So I understand that often families are coming to you because they have tried psychologists, psychiatrists, counselling and cognitive or behavioural therapies.  So how do you get started, given that often there is a history of trying to fix things that have had limited success?

I have the greatest respect for all of those therapeutic styles. What I do when working with a family is start with a parent session without the child to look at what help the parent needs, such as nervous system or somatic work.  The aim is to coregulate. If they have a dysregulated child, the mirror neurons mean dysregulation elsewhere.  We discuss different types of trauma and what they mean and explore Polyvagal Theory in more detail. I use an example of a 3 month old baby. The baby has been fed and changed and so the parent goes off to have a shower, thinking that the baby is about to nod off for a sleep.  If that baby seeks you with a cry, and you don’t respond because you are showering for example, that is a potential rupture to the felt safety of the child. The concept of coming back is an adult concept, the baby only knows you are there or you are not there.  Fast forward 5 or 10 or more years and that child may have anxiety about being left. They may have great challenge in their relationships and friendships because that original rupture was never repaired. So this can become stuck in a system in a physical way and manifest as anxiety for example, or where they may feel abandoned, isolated and alone. (memories of taking the children into the shower room or grandchildren in the shower with children at same time). Some theories that babies shouldn’t be more than 1.5 metres away from caregivers in first few weeks of life. So in hospital nursery or another room doesn’t allow response to the felt need to the child. 

Most parents simply get the work I do because they have spent years trialling other therapies. There is no parent blaming or victimising – everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they know. As a parent and grandparent myself, I know that sometimes we feel inadequate or guilty, perhaps because we might realise that maybe we were too stern or rigidly disciplining or too ‘laizze faire’ for example, but we only know what we know until someone teaches us a new way of looking at things.

My sessions take place with the child on their own ideally. However, where a child is too anxious, the parent will sit in until such time as they are attuned to me and feels safe in the environment and comfortable to move forward solo.

We meet weekly initially, sometimes with two sessions per week, and then gradually move to fortnightly.  Trauma based therapeutic work takes time.  It might mean we make a long-term commitment and we look for points of satisfaction, where an activity may change. For example, a child may play in one activity for weeks but then suddenly drop it because the active response has been found and it is no longer impacting on them in the same way.

When I meet with the child sometimes I find they are anxious or worried. This is about them not feeling safe yet so I gently work on developing rapport including meeting them with kind eyes to help instill the felt sense of safety.  Once the child begins to understand that they will be invited to play, they soon relax and realise that it is a safe and fun environment in which they can relax.  We meet weekly and gradually move to fortnightly, as its soft and gentle work, so it’s a long-term commitment, looking for points of satisfaction in the child’s system to know when to move onto the next thing. So a child might play one thing for weeks and then finally drop that and move on to the next thing. No miracle work here. (discussion about swimming lessons)

51:36 How do you know which one of these therapies will work for a child?

When I meet with the child, if I find that they are anxious or worried, that is about them not feeling safe. So working on rapport. Meeting them with kind eyes and building a sense of safety.

I also need to support the parents so they can support the child. That means explaining to parents that not probing and asking questions post session about what was done in therapy. The child will naturally discuss what they are ready to reveal and its important not to undermine that process with lots of questions.

This is essentially an intuitive process informed by extensive research and training.  By watching and observing, looking to see if the need is sensory and then matching with sensory based activities. For example introducing them to safe touch by brushing their hands with a soft brush. Touch is the first way we learn and is an important aspect to any sensorimotor work. Its also bilateral stimulation, as Im also trained in EMDR. I may invite them to engage with kinetic sand, shaving cream, painting with hands as brushes or using playdough or making stress balls with playdough in balloons. For some children I may offer them playmobil families and dolls houses. If I observe them organising groups and narrating family based stories that might tell me something about them For example, if they organise safe family groupings, that might be telling me they need to move away from chaos and perhaps unsafety into a preferred environment.  By being interested, not telling them where to put things, or what to do next, the child will seek what they need and as they become more confident will allow themselves to respond to the impulses associated with the previously thwarted active response. Sometimes a child might turn the playroom upside down. As the space is not a parent space generally, the child can do anything they want, without being told to clean up.  I let them know they can do almost anything and that if they want to do something that’s not ok we will find them another way. It is about taking away the shame factor and letting the body do what it needs to do to repair. It is not about what is wrong with you and what happened to you. Disengagement can often be part of the problem of mobile phones too.

One child I worked with was selectively mute. She would chat and engage with her carer, then go quiet coming into the playroom with me. This was happening everywhere for he, not just with me. Each time her bond with her carer was broken she would go selectively mute. We spent about 15 sessions colouring blue rainbows before she spoke. Because I didn’t go hooray when she spoke, and asked her whether she wanted light or dark blue, she realised I could tolerate her at that level of chaos, she could then repair and start to communicate. The child needs to be seen, heard, understood and accepted unconditionally in that sense of belonging rather than surrounded by disenchantment.  As time went on it turned more into the carer saying you need to be careful what you wish for! She is now a chatterbox who has so much to chat to people about! Even now I feel emotion coming up because its heartwarming to the very core when you see a child feeling safety.

1:00:35 Is there anything else important that we should discuss today in regards to helping families formed through adoption, kinship or permanent care?

If a child is not with their birth mother, for whatever reason, then that child will absolutely have experienced trauma and disrupture to attachment.  Any work with children (and actually adults too who are working on their own histories of this) who have experienced this will best be served with lots of unconditional positive regard, lots of understanding and support to brave the fear and held trauma that bubbles underneath the abandonment that occurred, in whatever form that might be. Again, not about blaming and shaming but understanding that this is their reality.  

If all of this discussion about sensorimotor art therapy has peaked an interest in some people, because the techniques can be brought into lots of other professions from psychology to nursing, if anyone is interested in learning more about sensorimotor psychology, look at the Institute for Sensorimotor Art Therapy website, with online and in person professional training, including weekend workshops. Can help people to become trauma informed and a body based way of working with the trauma.

Off to do some hand painting!!

Thankyou so much Chris.

For anyone else who's making the time to listen to this podcast thank you for giving up your valuable time too if you're a permanent care adoptive or kinship family needing support please contact permanent care and adoptive families on 9020-1833 until next time have an amazing week.


Chris Storm – Storm Insight

Rhythm of Regulation – Deb Dana

Child Centred Play Therapy Play Therapy Group – Interplay - Donna Berry

Polyvagal Theory and Safe and Sound Protocol – Stephen Porges

Somatic Experiencing – Peter Levine

Sensorimotor Art Therapy – Cornelia Elbrecht

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy – Pat Odgen