by Lauren Fallat, LPC ATR-BC
Art and its various mediums have the ability to provide a literal surface in which individuals across the lifespan can externally communicate through images, symbols, words and formal elements (lines, shapes, forms, textures, colors) emotions, internal fantasies, fears and dilemmas. In the context of art therapy, when the concept of ‘art’ is used, we are referring to the creative expression of one’s inner experience (thoughts, feelings, urges and behaviors, sensory experiences and perception of the world) rather than a focus on a learned set of skills to be critiqued or necessarily improved upon or enhanced. Rather, the art we are referring to is meant to be unique, individualized, spontaneous, experimental, playful and self-reflective.
In connecting and collaborating with children in a therapeutic way, often clinicians and caregivers will implement an art making or creative process, including drawing, coloring, role-playing and fantasy play. What is it about art that aligns itself so well with children and how is it helpful from a therapeutic standpoint?
Art therapy helps to foster trust and connection with figures of authority, caregivers as well as peers. This can be a reparative and healing experience for a child who has experienced early childhood trauma, the divorce of their parents, death of a loved one, or frequent life transitions at an early age. To create art, one enters into a relationship with the materials and learns to engage with them in a unique way. To create art within an art therapy session, a child not only develops a relationship with themselves through the creative expression of their inner feelings, thoughts and impulses, but also enters into a relationship with the art therapist. The role of the art therapist is to provide a sense of acceptance, freedom, collaboration, connection, healthy boundaries, reassurance and validation, which will in turn build trust over time with consistent engagement.
In the art making process, there are many choices available to the child- what art materials to use, what colors, how much or how little, how big or how small, how long or how short something is worked on. All of these choices made by the child in an art therapy session contributes to an enhanced sense of autonomy- the ability to think and act independently. Often when a child experiences a sense of powerlessness, helplessness and anger, they may feel limited in their ability to make choices for themselves or even begin to understand that they are not capable of making their own choices, which may contribute to increased anxiety. In the art therapy session, a child is encouraged to engage with the art materials in a safe way that is free and spontaneous, with some limiting factors, such as the time of the session, the amount of materials and types of materials available and the amount of time spent on the art making.
In a drawing, a child has the autonomy and authority to include or exclude any elements that they choose. In a clay sculpture a child has the ability to construct and deconstruct different forms at their will and as many times as they choose. In a painting, a child has the ability to paint the entire canvas one color or mix together as many colors as they like in whatever order they like.
According to Judith A. Rubin in her book Child Art Therapy (2005),
In art or play children can do the impossible. They may symbolically fulfill both positive wishes and negative impulses, without fear of real consequences. They can learn to control the real world by experimenting with active mastery of tools, media, and the ideas and feelings expressed in the process. They can gain symbolic access to and relive past traumas, and can rehearse and practice for the future. They can learn to be in charge in a symbolic mode, and thus feel more competent to master reality.
As a final thought, art in the context of a therapeutic setting, allows a space and container for which children can struggle with their emotions, can be messy, can be open, confused, angry, upset, sad, and joyous. The expectation is not for children to be afraid of their emotions and to hide them away, but to express them and learn to develop a way to verbally and nonverbally communicate what they are needing, which is often patience, understanding, attention, autonomy, play, acceptance, respect, fairness and empowerment.
If you are interested in exploring the possibility of art therapy for your child, please request an appointment at the Holistic Health Counseling Center with a board-certified Art Therapist: