In the book, Understanding Children’s Drawings, Cathy Malchiodi states, “Drawing has been undeniably recognized as one of the most important ways that children express themselves and has been repeatedly linked to the expression of personality and emotions. Children’s drawings are thought to reflect their inner worlds, depicting various feelings and relating information concerning psychological status and interpersonal style.”A young child is never going to walk into a therapy office sit down and say “Well, therapist, I have been struggling with depression.” To reach children we have to meet them where they are. We have to start with what they understand and know.
Young children developmentally lack the ability to communicate verbally and effectively with adults and adolescents. Because of this fact they use play as well as artistic expression to communicate their feelings and inner world. Over time children learn through observation and example how to verbalize as well as what topics are appropriate to communicate about.
This is learned through their surrounding environment but mostly from their families’ style of communication. Because this is learned from the child’s family dynamic a lot of aspects can be examined through the child’s artistic expression.
What is Art Therapy for Children?
As a therapist, I have worked with teens as well as children through art expression in sessions. I have seen such comfort and excitement arise as children and adolescents begin using artistic tools. They begin to get excited about the therapeutic journey ahead. Suddenly therapy is fun and easier than the client thought it could ever be.
Often times my clients will participate in painting, drawing, collaging or crafting. A particular client struggling with anger issues was instructed to release her negative emotion through her art. She was able to do whatever she pleased. She was free. She desired to break the materials, curious if this was acceptable she glanced up at me.
The client and I gently wrapped a small mirror in cloth. She then took a hammer releasing her negative emotion with the motion of hammer breaking the mirror into smaller pieces. This was such a therapeutic and real moment. At that moment destroying this mirror released her negative emotion and redirected the emotion into a positive one. She was able to take her hurt and build it into a story, communicating all her emotions at the same time.
Art therapy is a great tool with clients who are resistant or hesitant to begin therapy. Clients who use art in sessions are communicating things to the therapist that the client is not even aware they are communicating. Clients who may not be ready to verbalize things out loud or are hesitant to share can begin gaining trust in the therapist through art making.
While clients participate in art expression I have noticed that verbal communication has become easier while their mind is distracted by the art itself. Suddenly they begin to feel relaxed and conversation becomes natural.
Since children are not born comprehending how to verbally communicate, expressive arts can often become the child’s only form of communication. When children draw pictures it is easy to notice the child’s perception of the world. While a child draws their family the dad may be stretched to the top and bottom of the page showing the kids awareness of size and strength.
There may be rainbows or a big sun with bright colors indicating a positive mood. Perhaps a lot of spatial distance is created between the mom and dad, indicating the child hears them fighting often and feels they are not getting along. The hands of the father or mother may be drawn abnormally large. This could indicate physical abuse is occurring in the home.
Drawings express things that kids are afraid to speak out loud. Sometimes drawings express things that the child may never verbalize because they are not aware their mind is processing it. Childrens’ drawings show many indications of the child’s mental state, perception, mood, awareness, and other issues.
Children often act out behaviors observed or situations experienced in play as well as in drawings. Drawing is natural and comfortable for children as opposed to talk therapy which may be intimidating to a child.
Benefits of Art Therapy for Children
Research has proven that Art Therapy is beneficial in helping a child heal from problems and trauma, as a positive coping and healing tool as well as an expression of the child and the world around them. Art is a form of expression not only of the conscious mind but the unconscious mind.
Something that a child might not even be aware is hindering them may be expressed through a work of art. I have witnessed children expressing trauma through their works of art in session. Children who were timid and fearful to tell anyone what happened due to fear that they might get in trouble or may get someone else in trouble have, over time, communicated their secrets in art expression.
A young child painted areas on her body where she was inappropriately touched. For this child, this could never have been communicated with words. Art is powerful. It displays a story that words cannot. It communicates not only the inner feelings of the child but also the perception of the child’s world.
Children who walk into an office building may not understand why they are sitting with a stranger being asked questions about their life, this is why I believe art therapy can be so beneficial to children. Art therapy teaches a positive way to communicate as well as gives the client an outlet to cope with their hurts.
When using art, communicating becomes fun, effective and safe. It is familiar and therefore easy. Creating an environment of comfort and trust allows the child and the therapist to begin to understand one another.
Pablo Picasso said it best when he said; “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” It seems to date back to many centuries that children desired to participate in creativity. I believe this was and always has been the way children have communicated their world with adults.
Drawings are not only about communicating feelings but can also be a great coping tool that brings restoration from traumatic events or emotional disturbance as well as coping with depression, anxiety or any other form of mental illness.
Children may be timid in talk therapy and may be unsure how to communicate their problems. Art therapy is used to allow the child to show the therapist a glimpse into that child’s environment that words could never express. Eventually, the positive relationship and trust that the therapist brings into session will encourage and mirror effective ways to communicate verbally. As the therapist demonstrates this in sessions, while making art the child learns how to step from nonverbal communication into verbal communication.
Not only does art therapy bring healing and provide positive coping research shows that art therapy with children increases social, developmental and cognitive development. The interaction and acceptance that occurs through art making with the child and the therapist encourages positive social experiences and allows the child to trust and engage in mature social development.
Developmental benefits occur through the process of a child’s expression of their imagination and perception allowing the child to discover who the child is and learn things about relationships and the world around them. Cognition expands and grows as the child learns how to draw pictures or participate in art and find meaning behind the creative process.
Although art therapy is a nonverbal form of communication that does not mean that verbal communication is not a part of therapy. Children who participate in expressive art in a therapeutic setting are encouraged to communicate about their drawing. When children draw it activates a different side of the brain than when a child participates in talk therapy. It is when the left and the right brain are activated that trauma can begin to diminish and healing takes place.
For children, art can be a form of escape, a safe place, a distraction, a place where problems fade and positive chemicals are released. These happy chemicals reiterate to the child that expression is rewarding. During this positive experience, children associate drawing and communicating through their art as a positive feeling which reiterates repetition and expression.
Children become understood, heard, and praised through the therapeutic process of art. Children then begin to learn how to communicate effectively and positively about their hurts. Through art expression, the child begins to understand the types of emotions he or she is feeling. Art expression allows the child to become more and more aware of what is bothering them. Often times children feel happy or safe when they are drawing or creating something, it builds confidence in the child that they are capable of making something great.
As a therapist as well as a creative individual, I have, throughout my life, turned to creativity to express myself as a person, to find peace or relaxation, to cope with difficult times in my life as well as a way to engage in social settings. Art has had so many positive effects in my life. I have painted things in the past during difficult times not understanding it had multiple meanings until later.
This shows the process of healing and the unconscious mind at work. As a child art was one of the only ways I dealt with my emotions. I was a shy introverted little girl that was timid about communicating my problems. Art became my way of communicating. It traveled with me in time and through every problem I had a way to cope.
So if you are asking me professionally or personally I will tell you creativity is a powerful source of healing. I know its benefits from experience and wish for every child to be exposed to it and given some way to express themselves the way I was when I was unable to communicate verbally.
There are many benefits and positives for children participating in art therapy. Only some of which have been reviewed. Art for children is not just drawing a picture. It is conveying a story, a perspective, an expression or an emotion. Art is a vital way children tell adults what is going on in their lives.
Children desire to be heard and understood. Art sometimes is the only way that they know how to express their world to others. When a child is struggling with hurt, trauma, or family issues they cannot find professional solutions for their own problems. Instead, they depend on us.
Be advocates for children who are hurting. Allow children to communicate to you in the way they know how. If you are uncertain about art therapy and its benefits I encourage you to talk with an art therapist. Allow your child to be a part of something positive, creative, and healing through artistic expression. That is the point where communication can be unleashed and healing can begin.
Art is our one true global language. It knows no nation, it favors no race, and it acknowledges no class. It speaks to our need to reveal, heal, and transform. It transcends our ordinary lives and lets us imagine what is possible. – Richard Kamler
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way-things I had no words for. – Georgia O’Keeffe
Art enables us to find ourselves and to lose ourselves all at the same time. – Anonymous
Art is not always about pretty things. It’s about who we are what happened to us and how our lives are affected. – Elizabeth Broun
All photos courtesy of Leah Elliot, Used by Permission