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Understanding the Benefits of Working within the Metaphor in Art Therapy

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

In our fast-paced, constantly-connected world, it's more important than ever to find spaces and outlets for children to express their emotions. In art therapy, we use symbols to help children communicate their emotions in a visual and often non-verbal way. Art has always been a powerful tool for self-expression, and can be especially beneficial for kids who are struggling to find the words to articulate their feelings.

When we use symbols in art therapy, it is called metaphorical communication. This means that we are using images and objects to represent something else, such as our thoughts, perspectives, emotions and beliefs. We use metaphors all the time in our everyday conversations to communicate our feelings and to understand the feelings of others and our words become symbols representing those concepts and expressions.

Metaphor is a figure of speech that uses an indirect comparison between two things. For example, if you say "My love for you is like the sun," you're using metaphor to compare the strength of your love to the strength of the sun. Metaphors are a powerful tool in therapy, because they allow clients to explore difficult or complex feelings in a safe, non-threatening way.

In art therapy, metaphors are also commonly used to help children make sense of their external and internal worlds. A picture or drawing can be a great way for a child to express and process what they’re feeling when words are difficult to find, while also providing an opportunity to learn and identify the emotions that arise visually. When children are given the opportunity to express their emotions through metaphor, they are able to communicate more effectively with others.

There are many different metaphors that can be used in art therapy, and each child will respond to different ones in different ways. Some of the most common metaphors include:

• Animals – In art therapy, it is common to compare or associate emotions to characters or animals. Children often use animals as a way to represent their feelings and emotions. Animal metaphors can be very powerful, as they can help children to see their feelings and experiences in a new light. For example, a child who is feeling anxious might draw a picture of a rabbit that is hiding in its hole.

• Landscapes – landscapes can be used to represent both the inner and outer worlds of a child. They can also be used to depict the emotional state of a child at any given moment.

• Colors – colors can be used to represent different emotions. For example, a gray sky with rain clouds might represent feelings of sadness, while pink flowers in the yellow sun might represent feelings of happiness.

One of the most common metaphorical methods used in art therapy is comparing emotions to physical sensations. For example, a child might feel angry like a boiling pot of water, or an erupting volcano. This type of metaphor can be very helpful in helping children to understand and communicate their emotions.

Kinetic metaphors are a specific type of metaphor that use movement to convey emotion or state of mind. Kinetic metaphors are particularly effective because they allow clients to experience their emotions through their bodies. This can provide a level of understanding and insight that wouldn't be possible with words alone. For example, we might understand a child’s throwing or pounding of clay as a sign that they are experiencing physical urges stemming from anger or aggression.

Visual metaphors can be used to help children process trauma, cope with illness or disability, and deal with other difficult life experiences. They can help to bypass the child's literal thinking and open up new pathways of communication. When working with children, it's important to use visual metaphors that are relevant to their lives, such as the use of animals, weather patterns, landscapes, food, or common environments, such as school, the hospital or grocery store.

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