A child life specialist helps children using her creative skills.
Audrey Haugen started dancing as soon as she could walk. She learned ballet, tap and any kind of dance. The Rochester, Minnesota, native went on to choir in elementary school, joined a theater troupe when she was 10 years old, taught dance and theater in middle school and continued to perform throughout high school. The arts were her life.
“I found personal growth and healing through that,” Haugen says. “I took on someone else’s story and became comfortable in my own skin by being in someone else’s,” she says, and she wanted to continue that. “The arts are a tremendous gift to people, much more than just entertainment.”
Now Haugen brings her artistic skills to work every day as a certified child life specialist at Shriners Children’s in Woodbury, where she’s worked for the last year and a half.
She studied child psychology at the University of Minnesota and earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa. “Child life specialists exist to help support children of all ages through difficult situations, stress and trauma, often in a healthcare setting,” Haugen says.
“In my day-to-day practice, I incorporate play on a regular basis. For me, play includes improvisation, creativity, art, singing, dancing, being silly and anything else that the moment necessitates,” she says.
Often, she will work with a child who has had a traumatic medical experience and may be facing another one. “Together, we need to get to the bottom of what happened last time, what their perception and interpretation was of the event and find ways to effectively deal with those feelings and thoughts. Then, once they feel a sense of mastery over what happened, we work together to get prepared to do it again,” she says.
“Sometimes, those sessions involve dolls and doctor kits, so we can ‘play doctor,’ sometimes, it involves launching Nerf darts at items that symbolize the stressors; sometimes, it’s squirting syringes of paint so the child becomes desensitized to syringes. The therapeutic play options are as vast as the imagination is rich,” Haugen says.
She also volunteers with Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) to help parents and children caught in disasters, including the war in Ukraine and Hurricane Ian. “Kids wonder, ‘When will things go back to normal? ‘Whoho will take care of me?’” Haugen says. She and others prepare documents that help empower parents and provide strategies and resources so kids can cope and feel safe.
“Audrey has a huge heart,” says former CLDR executive director Jean Cooper. “That combined with her knowledge of children, work ethic, professionalism and desire to make life better for all children made her a tremendous asset.”
“Children are the future,” Haugen says. “I wish for all children to be cherished and valued; that healthcare can be a place for psychological safety and healing for children, youth and families; that medical trauma is minimized as much as possible,” she says.
With all of her duties, she’s gaining more balance in her professional and personal life, and she’s just started to tap dance again. “It feels so good,” she says.