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!