Art therapy is a form of treatment that uses art to help people work out their feelings, and a tool that can help experts diagnose their patients. Children and many adults may find art therapy easier than other types of therapy, because they may not have to use too many words to get relief. Instead, in art therapy, it is often the art and its symbolism that tell the therapist how that person is feeling inside. This is important for patients who find it hard to talk about their feelings or for the young child who may not have the words to describe a traumatic or painful experience.
Besides helping patients express their feelings, art therapy can help patients cope with difficult situations. The act of making things, creating art, is relaxing and reduces stress. Painting on a canvas or squeezing a piece of clay feels good. It’s also a great feeling to watch an art project take shape, something you make with your own hands.
Imagine a child with a chronic illness, or a child who has been bullied or abused. Such a child might use art to express how he or she feels about the experience. In this case, the art project he creates in an art therapy session, offers testimony to what he’s going through. The child can also look at and touch the art project, and show it to others. The art object itself may serve as validation for what he feels inside, or even be his voice: “This is how I feel.”
Whether a painting, drawing, or other type of art, an art object can become a symbol of the child’s experience. Having that symbol helps the child to put distance between himself and his medical or emotional issues. A sick child might, for example, draw a picture of a painful or frightening treatment. In the case of a child who was abused, he might draw a picture of the abuse. Once the child sets it down on paper (or in clay, or some other art medium) he has acknowledged what has happened, made it real, and now he can move on to be the person he is, outside of the painful treatments or abuse.
Art Therapy Creates Powerful Truths
Children would rather do something with their hands than talk about their feelings. They may worry that adults won’t believe their stories and sometimes that happens. It is painful for children when they are telling the truth and no one believes them. Art gives children a powerful tool for saying how they feel.
The child looks at the artwork she has made and she feels good. She created it, and to her, it’s very real. Her artwork gives form to what she feels and thinks. It’s something she can point to that expresses her feelings with credibility. It’s all there, without any need for words. Art is believable.
Creating A Healthy Distance
Through art therapy, a child may come to see that his illness or his bad experience is something separate from his identity. He may make a painting, for instance, that is all about pain, shame, anger, fear, helplessness, or disappointment. Expressing his feelings in an art project gives the child a concrete symbol he can then see as something outside of himself. He can point to it and say, for example, “This is pain.”
Then again, the child with cancer, or the victim of abuse, may want to use art not to express these unpleasant feelings. The child with cancer may want to remember that she is also the child who adores the color purple, loves flowers, and has a silly sense of humor. That too, can be in a child’s painting. Through art therapy, children can come to understand that they are people beyond and outside of their illnesses or experiences.
It’s important to note that children don’t have to be talented at art to receive art therapy. The purpose of art therapy is not to create art for art’s sake but to serve as a means for:
- Exploring feelings
- Boosting self-esteem
- Coping with illness or difficult experiences and feelings
- Communicating feelings and ideas with others
- Digging deep into the unconscious and finding and expressing the feelings buried deep inside
Art Therapy As Diagnostic Tool
Sometimes it is difficult to know what is bothering a troubled child. A trained art therapist may be able to diagnose the problem by examining a child’s art. Dr. Carole Lieberman is one such expert. A Beverly Hills psychiatrist and bestselling author who treats children and their families, Lieberman has experience in interpreting children’s drawings.
Dr. Lieberman also acknowledges that a parent or teacher may be able to tell something is bothering a child, just by looking at that child’s painting or drawing. A child may be putting out distress signals through art and parents should be watchful. “Parents should worry if their child’s drawings are mostly in dark colors, since this is a typical sign of depression. A child’s world seems very dark when they’re depressed, so that’s what they draw.
“If a child draws something and then scribbles over it in long dark strokes, it means that they are very angry. And if you can still see what they were covering over on the page, you will have a clue as to what they are angry about.
“If a child draws a dilapidated house, with no flowers or trees around it, and no sun, it means that they see their own house as being unhappy.
“If they don’t draw windows, it can mean that they don’t want people to know what goes on in their house, or they think they are not supposed to tell what goes on there,” says Dr. Lieberman, who cautions that parents should consult with an art therapist before jumping to conclusions about a child’s art and what it means.
To sum up, art therapy offers a stress-reducing, tangible, and nonverbal way to explore and deal with feelings and issues. If your child hates to talk about her feelings, art therapy may be just the ticket. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) website links to a directory for licensed art therapists in the United States, broken down by location.
Has your child used art therapy to cope with chronic illness or a difficult experience? We’d like to know about it. Write to Varda at Kars4Kids dot org with your child’s success story.