The Art of Art Therapy: Why Art Therapy with Children (Part 2)
In my last article with SFV-CAMFT's "Connections!" newsletter, I wrote about what Art Therapy is and how it works - a purposeful, meaningful art-based intervention within a therapeutic relationship. We must feel and externalize our experiences; the tangible art product allows us to bare-witness to our internal life story, providing a self-explorative process and a corrective experience.
Drawing, playing and pretending are a natural part of the “work” of children and their development. When art expression is incorporated into treatment, art therapists help children visually express and record their experiences, perceptions, feelings and imagination. Art therapy provides a safe vehicle and a reparative dynamic for children.
All creative arts therapies are inherently relational therapies because they emphasize the “right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere” connection between child and therapist. Because art therapy engages the “creative side” of the brain in both individuals, it can be helpful in repairing and reshaping attachment through experiential means. It may tap into those early relational states that existed before words were dominant, allowing the brain to establish new, more productive patterns. Art therapists who work with children are well versed in how to establish positive attachment, attunement and reflexive convergence; a felt experience by one another and thus deeply understood and unconditionally accepted; both within the therapeutic relationship and the art making process.
Neurobiology continues to inform mental health professionals about why specific art-based activities, within the context of therapy, may be helpful to children and aid in self-regulation. In particular, certain sensory characteristics of art making seem to be effective in improving mood, sensory integration, grounding, and calming the body and mind, especially with children who have experienced traumatic events.
Art expression is a form of non-verbal communication. For children who may not be able to articulate thoughts and feelings, it is one way to convey what may be difficult to express with words or even when words are not enough. It is also a sensory-based approach that allows the child to experience themselves and communicate on many levels - visual, tactile, kinesthetic - to not only be heard, but also to be seen through their artwork images. For example, those who have experienced abuse have a way to “tell” without talking when they are afraid to speak about specific events. In times of trauma, children relive experiences not only in their minds, but also through their actions, which may indicate attempts to regain mastery over the circumstances that have disrupted their lives. Trauma affects mind and body. Creative expression is an important tool in trauma intervention with children. With many traumatic and disastrous events and disasters occurring in our world, children need to find an internal sense of safety through creative, developmentally appropriate activities like art and play. Creative mediums such as crayons, paintbrushes, and pencils can serve as vehicles for communicating the responses connected to living through such events. Art expression is means of “breaking the silence”, allowing children to be in touch with their inner world by creatively expressing the unspeakable; and bypassing “talking about it” when it is too difficult to put into words or when language is temporarily unavailable due to crisis.
Art therapy provides an opportunity to express one’s self using metaphors. The strength in this approach is in the ability to encourage and enhance storytelling and narratives. Storytelling does not have to be literal to be therapeutic as the child can use a drawing, painting, collage or construction to inform the listener. In fact, a child who has experienced traumatic events or is challenged by an emotional disorder may only find it possible to generate imaginative stories. With the support and guidance of the therapist, these purposeful narratives serve as a way to slowly and safely release disturbing experiences.
Finally, art expression provides useful information on development in young children. By using art as a therapeutic tool, we can better understand a child’s emotional experiences, cognition and sensory integration; adding valuable information not always apparent through talk therapy alone. For example, in one of Lowenfeld’s stages of artistic development, he indicates, at ages 3-4 years old, a child begins to make connections between shapes they draw and the physical world around them resembling people or objects in their lives. It is in this stage they first show growth and make the connection to communicating through their drawings. Children need art and, I believe, conversely, art needs children.
Thank you for reading!
I have not written in a very long time, but I promise to make it a goal for 2017. This article was inspired by my ongoing passion for art and the field of Art Therapy. I wrote it for the "Connections!" newsletter for SFV-CAMFT (San Fernando Valley Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapy), where I chair the Expressive Arts Special Interest Group. Enjoy Part 1 and leave comments below!
The Art of Art Therapy: What it is and How it Works (Part 1)
The mention of Art therapy often elicits comments such as “But it’s just arts and crafts!” and questions such as “Can’t I just buy or use one of those coloring books?” Parents are often concerned with the effective qualities of art therapy as a form of treatment. Also, non-expressive-arts professionals and self-help enthusiasts show curiosity relative to therapy, using “artistic” mediums calling it “art therapy” and present it as a means to heal. Hence, the question, “What is art therapy?” is needed to distinguish this non-talk therapeutic modality as a profession rather than fun arts and crafts, or a self-help approach.
As Cathy Malchiodi states in her peer reviewed articles published in Psychology Today, “It is not surprising that making art is relaxing. However, “art therapy” has been morphed into just about any “feel-good” art project. A good example of what is currently being called art therapy is the coloring book phenomenon. Descriptors like “meditative,” “mindful,” and “spiritual” are being used to explain the benefits; others imply that shading in the various designs are a way to focus, create a work of beauty, or find personal satisfaction through distraction and diversion; and some even go as far as to propose that coloring books are a form of personal therapy, even “art therapy,” fueling the idea that coloring is an inner experience with impacts similar to meditation or yoga.
Yes, it is very important to “feel-good,” personally and professionally; wanting the best for our clients, but these coloring books are not mindfulness and meditation practices in the true sense of the word and are not “art therapy.” It takes more than coloring to bring about reparation. The mundane motion of crayon or pencil moving back and forth within pre-set boundaries, in the form of coloring lines is only a form of containment, mastery, and mind-numbing escape from the here-and-now. Any effective form of psychotherapy or counseling extends well beyond a series of grounding and relaxation techniques. Specifically, effective expressive arts therapy helps to expand awareness and promotes a connection of both body and mind in the present moment. Further, expressive arts challenges us to broaden our "windows of tolerance" by engaging us in the creative process to take a bit of risk, move a bit farther out of our comfort zone, and become just a bit more curious and compassionate toward the deepest parts of ourselves. The deeper experience of “art therapy” is grounded in two key principles. First, art therapy involves the application of a purposeful, meaningful art-based intervention in contrast to completing an art activity or art “project.” Applying interventions is a central component of any helping professional’s role and is predicated on the second aspect--relationship. It is the right (whole brain) integration, attuned, interpersonal qualities of the art therapy relationship that support art’s reparative powers. Humans have always healed within relationships, whether through social/community or professional support. However, while art expression may bring about wellness in some sense, "Art Therapy” is defined by the relational dynamic and process, which are at the center of reparation and recovery; providing us a meaningful product via purposeful interventions representative of new or corrective experiences.
True Art Therapy helps clients in the following ways: gain insight awakening innate capabilities to resolve/reconcile conflicts and problems; develop interpersonal and social skills; manage behaviors and addictions; improve reality orientation; reduce stress; and increase self-esteem and self-expression. Insight and comprehension is increased by helping clients put their emotions and nonverbal experiences into words. Inner dialogue often guides choices while creating, as well as after completing the art product. Both the creation and reflection of the “art piece” supported by the relational connection with the art therapist facilitates better understanding of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Marked changes are recognizable in the client by art therapist and client; relative to his/her behaviors toward self and others. The self-directed nature of art expression, which involves choices about what to do and how to do it, allows clients to change their behavioral responses through the process of art expression. Art therapy provides clients the opportunity to actually practice alternative responses to existing personal narratives. Perception and self-perception are also increased by focusing on the present moment, identifying emotional responses and experiencing connections between emotions and body awareness. Though increased awareness may at first be uncomfortable it can provide the first step in recognizing and validating emotions and act as a starting point for further therapeutic exploration and actions. Clients are also able to achieve personal integration by strengthening identity and self-image, gaining increased positivity. The experience of Art Therapy makes emotions visible, allowing for further investigation of feelings and thoughts within the course of therapy in a safe manner. Also, conflicting emotions can be brought together in one coherent image, something often impossible to do using words alone. Emotional responses are modulated and impulses are regulated, thus experiencing more freedom. Art Therapy fosters experiential space in which individuals can experiment with new responses to difficult feelings (a reparative/corrective experience), thus increasing a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Of course, the quest for more research is a given. In the meanwhile, we must continue to break the stigma, clarifying and educating about the meaning and powerful impact of Art Therapy. We must remain curious; always exploring and asking questions. There will always be those who find art’s healing forces naturally in times of trauma, crisis, loss, or simply as a means to reduce stress. Most who are passionate about art therapy as a profession discovered their calling because of their own transformative experiences with art. But without both the clear articulation of purposeful art-based interventions and specific relational dynamics that support these interventions, “art as therapy” and “art projects” are simply artistic terms without traction—leaving the public to come to its own conclusion about “What is art therapy?”
Stay tuned for Part 2: How to Use Art Therapy, Specifically with Children!
Thank you for reading!
I AM SO EXCITED TO MAKE MY FIRST BLOG ENTRY!
The Art of Setting a New Year's Resolution
HAPPY NEW YEAR! HERE ARE A FEW TOOLS TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE ART OF SETTING RESOLUTIONS FOR THE NEW YEAR:
1) Know the difference between goals vs resolutions - Resolutions are firm, sometimes unrealistic, decisions made that enable people to believe they must follow them, which may cause a lot of stress. Goals are more realistic choices set in a continuum and can be edited or changed as you wish throughout your year.
2) Start with a desire/hope/wish to spark motivation - Don't take or spend to much time deciding; make a simple choice you can begin to act on. Perhaps a tradition?
3) Make realistic and mindful choices - Celebrate and do it for you. Self-care! You don't have to prove ANYTHING to ANYONE. Be mindful of what you want to achieve/accomplish, not what anyone told you you should do or be.
4) Set manageable goals - Set goals that are still challenging and specific to follow, rather than too broad or easy. It's okay to start slow. Set mini goals throughout the year, instead of larger goals at the beginning of the year. Be your best fan and challenge your self-sabotaging thoughts/beliefs.
5) Find a buddy - YOU ARE NOT ALONE, even if you are head-strong and independent. Others are working towards achieving their goals as well. Listening and supporting can be a goal in and of itself. It's always great to feel more connected with friends, family, peers, etc.
6) Accept what you can't control - We are not superwomen/men; WE ARE HUMAN and, at times, are not able to accomplish some of what we set out to do. Don't be hard on yourself because this is realistic and inevitable. It does NOT mean you're a failure and can't do anything right or that you have more work to do next year and you're hopeless. We can try to look at things different and see what we CAN do.
Try "remembulations." Fill a jar or box up with items that remind you of the things you have accomplished throughout the year, each time they happen. At the end of the year, reflect on each item and celebrate. You can also keep a journal and write a positive statement about yourself for each event or moment. Increase positive self-talk and allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride - no matter how big or small, silly or personal. All that matters is that it's yours!
7) Remember - YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH, even if things don't work out or you choose not to look into goals this year. Just as in #6, remember that this isn't about a "new year's resolution" to resolve or change/fix an issue or problem. It's about looking at things differently and seeing what healthy choices we can continue to build on, rather than thinking or believing we need change or fixing. We all have inner strength and I believe in remaining hopeful, by focusing on our positives and building on our strengths.
HAPPY NEW YEAR AGAIN!,