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Art Therapy For Children

So what if the client is not actually you, but your child. Is art therapy for children any different than adults?

So I’ve written a post describing art therapy previously, but I thought it was about time I was a little more specific about art therapy for children, plus I promised this post way back in my new-year activity idea and it’s now March (whoops). So to recap my previous Understanding Art Therapy post ; Art therapy blends traditional counselling techniques (i.e. methods of talking and thinking) with creative processes to promote insight, reflection and expression which are all important parts of the healing journey. Art therapists employ many different activities and materials with their clients from painting and drawing, to collage and clay modelling. Like any good therapist, art therapists respond to their client and then guide the art therapy accordingly. This will mean that depending on your comfort levels, your current difficulties and your goals for art therapy, you may do a number of different activities. The art therapist may guide a playful interactive process that is all about sensation and exploration, they may prompt you to create an image on a particular topic or they may let you direct the session based on what you need.

I should say before continuing that I have a strong belief of what art therapy is not, particularly when it comes to art therapy for children. It is not prescriptive drawing techniques. Prescriptive drawing was once heavily used but it now considered old fashioned and risk ridden. An example of a prescriptive drawing technique would be to get a client or child to draw a tree, and depending on the various branches, knots and holes in the tree an interpretation would be made about their current state or life experience (and could be as basic as feeling isolated to as extreme as having experienced abuse). This interpretation was sometimes shared with the client and sometimes not. Reading an old case file in a previous job, a counsellor had used these techniques to justify children’s experiences of sexual abuse. The team worked with sexually abused children who would often retract or struggle to express their experiences. You can imagine my absolute horror. Fortunately my distaste for this type of “art therapy” started early. It’s not to say that I don’t direct my clients to create specific imagery, I do, quite frequently. Nor is it to say that clients don’t symbolically imbed their emotional experiences or existential troubles into art processes and products, they (we) do. American art therapist Bruce Moon likens art to a canvas mirror, and we all look in the mirror and see different things. It is much more productive for a client to discuss what they see and feel with the support, curiosity and empathy of the therapist rather than interpretations and assumptions.

So hopefully by now you have a bit of a picture about art therapy and hopefully the consensus is that art therapy can be diverse in its approach but commonly includes an art process and some varying degree of dialogue and reflection.  There is another form of art therapy, which i like to call community art therapy. There is a whole range of workshops, settings and programs that can be plonked under this heading.  Sometimes you may notice “Art Therapy” run in open or loosely themed groups in community settings by a whole host of individuals from social workers and OT’s to artists and life coaches. This type of art therapy often relies solely on the process of art making to provide the therapeutic benefit (rather than a client therapist relationship or the reflection/discussion process). Art-making can be naturally cathartic, soothing and skill-building. I have to admit as a registered art therapist, I cringe when i see art therapy workshops or programs advertised without an art therapist at the helm. After-all a heart-warming philosophical chat with friend isn’t called counselling or psychology. But I do acknowledge that art-making can be beneficial in multiple forms and I encourage clients to do their research, identify their needs and seek what best suits them before participating in any activity.

So what if the client is not actually you, but your child. Is art therapy for children any different to that for adults? In many ways it’s not, but I find with children, meaning is made during the art process and subsequent storytelling and play rather than in a verbal reflexive process like it is with adults. Children will often create characters, symbols and narrative to create a reflective distance whereas adults often have the capacity to extract and directly identify themselves from the material at hand. It is this capacity for imaginative play and symbolic functioning in children that makes art therapy such a viable form of therapy. I get many a report that a child is struggling to verbalise their experience and is instead acting out, complaining of physical ailments, withdrawing, or sleeping poorly (amongst other things). I have discussed before (very, very briefly) the fact that the last part of the brain to develop is that associated with foresight and self-awareness. For any particular person emotions and feelings are hard to deal with, it is part of our human complex. As we grow into adults, particularly in society’s that value intellectualism and verbal communication we become more apt at verbally describing our experiences. It is constantly communicated to us to speak about rather than act out our feelings. Part of the reason art therapy is used with adult populations is because this ability to speak and heal is not uniformly successful for every person and is frequently overestimated. There is more to our existence and experience than our thoughts.

In summary children more commonly lack the words to express and process their feelings and emotions, making it difficult to engage them in traditional verbal therapies. They are prone to acting out and being impulsive (you can read more about communication and children here). They have avid imaginations, use storeytelling to make sense of their world and are not inhibited by as many social constraints (such as having to be good at art to do it). These are some of the reasons a child may be suited to a creative approach to therapy. Creative therapies include play therapy, art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to art therapy for children:

art therapy fo children

I am still not sure I understand how it will help my child?

Art therapy primarily offers a safe space for your child’s expression. Art therapy can help support your child to find ways to express and work through their difficulties. Some of the benefits include:

  • Encouraging self-expression and articulation of feelings and thoughts
  • Helping children process and work through difficult experiences and emotions
  • Promoting a sense of independence and feeling of control
  • Learning problem-solving skills
  • Developing healthy and effective coping skills
  • Enhancing communication skills
  • Supporting hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills
  • Increasing self awareness and self esteem

Renown art therapist Cathy Malchiodi has an insightful look at art therapy for children and how it works in this article.

Who is it for?

Art therapy is for anyone of any age regardless of artistic skill. Art therapists like any mental health practitioner specialise their work to particular age groups and difficulties. I work with both children and adolescents regarding the following difficulties:

  • Anxiety
  • Bereavement
  • Poor self-esteem, friendship and social difficulties
  • Psychosomatic symptoms
  • Attachment difficulties
  • Behavioural issues
  • Chronic pain and illness
  • Trauma and out-of-home care

Other art therapists specialise with children experiencing family breakdown or separation, living with physical or cognitive disabilities, those in palliative care, eating disorders and early psychosis among a whole host of other difficulties. There is no measurement for when to see a therapist, some parents seek a few support sessions as early intervention for anxiety and self-esteem problems while others have complex and heavy situations that require longer-term therapy and a multidisciplinary approach.

How can I be sure it is going to work?

You can’t be. Like all therapies there are no guarantees. The best thing you can do as a parent is identify what you want to “work” for your child. What do you want to see happen in therapy? You may just want them to have a safe place to express themselves, gain some practical coping strategies or improve behavioral outbursts. Discussing your child’s goals with your child’s therapist from the start is important and also helps you keep your expectations in check. When looking for a therapist, do your research and if they don’t seem like a good fit for your family, try someone else. It is important for you to feel supported as a parent, for some children ongoing health conditions means that you have to alter your vision for them. This can be hard. In such cases parents may benefit from their own therapy or counselling.

Will my child make art at home and expect me to address the meaning?

If therapy is explained to a child as a safe place to express their feeling and help them manage their difficulties they will usually adopt an understanding of the space. Children however will sometimes open up to people they feel safe with, quite commonly caregivers. If you feel uncertain or anxious about responding to your child’s feelings and thoughts then let your child’s therapist know, they will be able to help. But be confident that the love you have for your child is what they are often looking for. Listen, validate and reassure. There is no grand science, but avoid minimising, ridiculing, assuming or ignoring your child when they present feelings, including through drawing.

How do I choose an art therapist?

Word of mouth is a popular form of recommendation and commonly in Australia it is suggested to see your GP or Pediatrician with mental health concerns. This can be a great starting point for support, but remember they refer to a limited number of professionals who have network links with the practice. If you have energy for the search, try googling and calling potential therapists or use a directory such as the ANZATA (soon to be ANZACATA) . This will show registered art and creative therapists in your city.

How many sessions does my child need?

This is really dependent on your child’s current situation. The more complex or long-standing their difficulties, sometimes the longer they need therapeutic support. It is useful to identify goals and expectations early so that the therapist can tailor and plan the sessions appropriately. Remember that a one-off appointment will achieve minimal amounts. It takes a few sessions for a child to develop rapport and feel comfortable with a therapist, for the therapist to get a clear idea of what your family’s experiences are and then commence the therapy.

Is art therapy expensive?

Like all psychological interventions, fees are extremely variable. Unfortunately art therapy is not yet subsidised by Medicare in Australia so any cost will be out of pocket. I try and set my fees according to the approximate gap fee with a psychologist, so the out of pocket is similar. It is important to remember that art therapists have hidden costs for art-materials and also spend time planning and reviewing your child’s session, needs and progress.

Is an art therapy group suitable or should they see someone individually?

Group art therapy has the added complexity of others artworks, sometimes interactive and collaborative activities as well as the listening and sharing of verbal reflections in a group format. Groups can be a great way to reduce social isolation, improve social and interpersonal skills and gain more generalised skills or benefits. For children who are easily triggered by sensory stimulation, have minimal time to themselves, or are significantly behaviorally disruptive, groups should be avoided to begin with. When considering a group, carefully review its purpose, any promises advertised and who is running the group. Closed art therapy for children groups where children meet certain criteria are likely to be therapeutically driven, whereas open “community” groups are more general and benefits are reaped more commonly from the diversional nature of the activity. For example I sometimes run community workshops that are art-based with a therapeutic/emotional flavour. This basically means more art and less therapy.

Please comment below with additional questions or contact me directly.

art therapy for children