Children with emotional and behavioral problems often find it difficult (and sometimes intimidating) to verbalize their feelings in clinical settings. Limitations in their vocabulary may also pose a problem in correctly identifying a child’s underlying issues. Instead, they may act out or completely shut down emotionally. Art therapy can help these children freely express their feelings without the need for words. Art therapists are creative individuals with certified knowledge in psychology and counseling techniques who work closely with children to get to the core of any emotional or behavioral problem.
An art therapist will choose age-appropriate materials like paints, crayons, pencils, markers, paper, or clay to work with kids individually or in a group setting. Since each child is unique with specific needs, there are no set rules a therapist needs to follow. However, for art therapy to succeed, the therapist has to first gain the trust of the child. Once trust has been established, the therapist lets the child take the lead, all the while emphasizing positive emotions. By working one-on-one, the therapist can decipher the symbolic meanings of the child’s art and discuss the underlying issues in a safe and relaxed environment. The art therapist can also opt for group therapy, giving the child a sense of security, comfort, and support.
How Can Art Therapy Help?
By stimulating the innate creativity and imagination of children, art therapy is believed to assist in relieving stress, handling emotions, coping with loss, boosting confidence, and improving cognitive skills.
Healing Traumatic Memories
Children who have undergone abuse (physical, mental, or sexual) or witnessed violence (domestic, via war or a natural calamity) often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Children often struggle or fail to respond in traditional question–answer sessions, because recollecting such disturbing episodes evokes negative emotions. Moreover, scientific research has found that traumatic memories are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain. Since the left side of the brain is responsible for language, this makes it even more difficult to find the words to express these memories and emotions.1 But art can act as a powerful medium for expression, without being too overwhelming. In one study held in a pediatric hospital, children with PTSD underwent art therapy for six months. They found that art therapy intervention for this amount of time reduced acute stress levels in the children.2 In another study conducted on sexually abused children and adolescents, group art therapy for just eight weeks reduced anxiety, anger, and stress.3
Coping with Grief, Disability, or Disease
Losing a loved one early in one’s life can cause lifelong psychological problems. Sadly, a child’s grief often goes unnoticed because children don’t grieve the same way as adults – they are more emotionally immature and unable to verbalize their grief. Children facing a death in the family also tend to put on a brave face, concealing their true feelings. By acknowledging the child’s confusion and pain, art therapy intervenes in a compassionate way. One way an art therapist may get insights into a child’s emotions is by having them make a grief mask, which can help the therapist decipher any hidden meanings behind the colors and shapes used.4
Art therapy can also lead to a more positive sense of self, especially in disabled children. When a visually impaired child creates art, they feel in control, confident, and become more aware of their surroundings.5
Children with an illness or disorder may resort to self-blaming as a way to justify their suffering. In the book Handbook of Art Therapy, art therapist Tracy Councill cites an example of an 8-year old boy with leukemia whose art always revolved around the theme of punishment. Though he repeatedly heard from his doctors that cancer was not a punishment for his behavior, only Tracy was able to convince him to stop blaming himself. She concluded that it is easier for a child to develop a meaningful relationship with a compassionate therapist (especially one well-equipped with fun art supplies) than a medical caregiver who only seems to provide pills and needles. Creating art can also help ease any distress associated with painful procedures like drawing blood or inserting an IV. In fact, one 4-year old getting blood drawn was able to scare away her pain with a “scary monster” that she had drawn.6
For terminally ill children, art therapy helps in dealing with the anxiety, confusion, and mystery behind death. Art encourages them to confront these feelings and learn to cope with them.7 Creating a memory box is not only a great form of therapy for the child but also a way to leave behind something meaningful for their family.
Art therapists work with support from parents, siblings, and extended family as well. When the family members get involved in making art together, it gives them a chance to spend quality time together and address their own differences and fears.8
Treating Learning, Developmental, and Behavioral Disorders
In children with learning disabilities, an imbalance in the right hemisphere of the brain will disrupt their perception. As a creative-expressive method, art aids in bringing balance to the brain.9 And since the concept of right or wrong doesn’t apply to art, it can greatly benefit children with dyslexia, especially those who lack confidence or are afraid of taking risks.10
In children with developmental and behavioral issues, art therapy can help reduce aggression and improve attention and sensory perception, while also boosting self-esteem and diminishing symptoms of depression.11 Art therapy can help quell hyperactivity and attention problems, especially in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), by acting as a channel to focus a child’s energy. Meanwhile, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) – who generally struggle with social skills, sensory regulation, and expanding their imagination – can develop creativity and abstract thinking skills by working closely with an art therapist. Working with materials like clay and paper can stimulate the child’s senses and regulate their motor skills.
Creating art can also improve self-esteem, which will inevitably lead to better social skills.12 In a study on autistic children between the ages of 11 and 18 years old, art therapy increased assertiveness and reduced problematic behaviors and hyperactivity, which led to an improvement in social skills.13
In general, the art therapist will respect the child’s decision to keep or destroy their art at the end of a session. After all, art therapy is not about the final product – it’s about the therapeutic journey that comes with simply making and creating art.
|↑1||Van der Kolk, Bessel A. “Posttraumatic stress disorder and the nature of trauma.” Healing trauma: Attachment, mind, body, and brain (2003): 168-195.|
|↑2||Chapman, Linda, Diane Morabito, Chris Ladakakos, Herbert Schreier, and M. Margaret Knudson. “The effectiveness of art therapy interventions in reducing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in pediatric trauma patients.” Art Therapy 18, no. 2 (2001): 100-104.|
|↑3||Pifalo, Terry. “Pulling out the thorns: Art therapy with sexually abused children and adolescents.” Art Therapy 19, no. 1 (2002): 12-22.|
|↑4||How Arts and Crafts Help Children Express Grief, Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation.|
|↑5||Art Therapy Program for Children and Adults with Visual Impairments, National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations, Inc.|
|↑6||Malchiodi, Cathy A., ed. Handbook of art therapy. Guilford Press, 2011.|
|↑7||Carboni, Anthea. “Art therapy in the paediatric oncology setting: an assessment of the feasibility of art therapy to address the psychosocial needs of paediatric cancer patients.” (1995).|
|↑8||Creativity at the End of Life, National Association of Social Workers.|
|↑9||The Uses of Art Therapy with Exceptional Children, Frostburg State University.|
|↑10||Thomson, Patience, and Peter Gilchrist. Dyslexia: a multidisciplinary approach. Nelson Thornes, 1997.|
|↑11||Paula Ann Christiansen. “Use of Art Therapy to build new structures of self-concept with ADD and Autism Spectrum Individuals”. Adler Graduate School. 2013.|
|↑12||Art Therapy, Monarch Center for Autism.|
|↑13||Epp, Kathleen Marie. “Outcome-based evaluation of a social skills program using art therapy and group therapy for children on the autism spectrum.” Children & Schools 30, no. 1 (2008): 27-36.|