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Superheroes Get Sad Too

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Superheroes.  I have also spent a few too many hours down the rabbit hole of internet googling. I can now share that Batman’s biggest strength and also weakness is that he is human, ironman can heal his own armour and that elsatigirl stretches herself so much she is vulnerable to getting stuck in doors! My recent (and admittedly first) interest in superheroes makes a little more sense if I explain the title of  my recent art therapy workshop; “Superhero’s Get Sad too”. Since updating my knowledge of superheroes and sneaking in a few non-traditional (but  popular) characters  into the planned activities, I have been interested in why kids are so naturally apt at idolising fictional characters.

Without getting too technical; children’s social and emotional development is shaped somewhat by how they make sense of the world around them. Children use a mixture of imagination and observation to construct and explore their reality and to distinguish self and other. During childhood children develop and thoroughly utilise the ability to symbolise, an ability in adulthood we take for granted. Symbolism is the representation of ideas or qualities through a thing (I said I wasn’t getting too technical!). It is a cultural and social norm that is a little tricky to describe (You can read examples and an explanation here).  It is precisely the symbolism of superheroes; what they represent, that makes them so attractive to younger eyes.

Superheroes are the perfect example of embodied symbolism. Their powers, weaknesses and characteristics are often symbolic of bigger meanings and in true fashion of any literary or film pursuit they encode larger themes, morals and existential questions. Basically Superheroes and other popular characters are attractive to children because they simultaneously evoke curiosity, imagination and symbolic meaning. Ask a child why they love a character or superhero and consider their answer in the wider context of their world. Children idolise characters because they portray something that may be enviable but not possible or practical for the human race, such as flying or breaking rules. Or the character may have high doses of a highly praised attribute such as strength, perseverance or the ability to conquer evil.

It’s great that superheroes can offer insight into the dreams and desires of children, and assist them in perceiving the larger environment and wider conundrums of the world but what about the dark side of superheroes? What happens when children are idolising less than morally appropriate characters? I am admittedly a little behind with the whole anti-hero thing that seems to be a current trend. With characters like Deadpool becoming popular, my optimism for the superhero lesson may fade fast. But for now I am proceeding with relative optimism and a healthy dose of caution.

Looking a little more at the dark side of superheroes’ and the pitfalls of children idolising them and we come to the key controversy of the use of violence to solve issues. Hannah Schacter’s blog discusses this whilst reflecting on a study into children’s behavioural changes after exposure to superhero violence. Unsurprisingly it is found in the small studies presented that consistent exposure to violence can increase a child’s violent behaviours. Before you panic and ban Batman from the house, Schacter raises a very important point that children need help to understand and distinguish appropriate behaviour and the difference between fiction and reality.  This requires parents and caregivers to be active in discussing and exploring themes of violence, good and evil and also knowing where to draw the line. Cruella Da Ville, Rasputin and the White Witch used be villain enough to scare most young children and whilst times may have changed children’s tolerance for fear has not.

If you happen to be a parent of a villian loving child,  try reading Why Do Kids Like the Bad Guys? by Mark Oliver. He will share your trepidation that your child vouches for Jafar over Aladdin and Hook over Peter Pan. Oliver points out again that children need help to understand right and wrong and that they can be attracted to characters that make them feel empowered. Aside from wariness about violence what are some of the other lesson superheroes can teach our children?

Moresi points out in her blog “Superheroes; how do they influence our children” that superheroes teach children to dare, that their strengths and weaknesses are unique and to develop and stand by their morals. Sandler from huffington post also points out that superheroes can also teach children about weaknesses, having “enemies”, having a cause, believing in dreams and the necessity of working hard.

Which brings me to  a similarity between what superheroes can teach children and art therapy.  One of the reasons that art therapy can be a useful medium to engage children is because it creates a triangle of communication. Instead of having a dialogue between two; the child and the therapist, it ushers a third party into the room; the artwork. The artwork or art process can relieve pressure  by acting as a diversion for feelings, concerns and thoughts. It’s like that time you told a chemist or doctor about a friend’s embarrassing health problem when you were talking about yourself (we have all done it!).  Superhero’s or characters can essentially become a version of the same principle. It is much less confronting to talk about superheroes or popular characters at least to begin with. Superheroes come in handy in art therapy, they assist in talking and exploring strengths, difficulties and emotions. Superheroes can become a theme for numerous games as well as art-based activities. After exploring a child’s attitudes and perceptions of superheroes, a therapist can begin to explore a child’s perception of themselves and their experience. Designing themselves as a superhero can be a great activity for self-reflection, strength building and acknowledging dreams, goals and vulnerabilities.

If your not an art therapist the nature of this activity can be simplified and used verbally. As a caregiver or other professional you may be able to explore the weight and balance of weaknesses and strengths though superhero similarity. For example is your child clumsy and bothered by it? Think kung-fu panda. Always getting wayward and into trouble? Try Puss in Boots. Insanely jealous of siblings or friends, think Tinkerbelle. Worries about the world? Batman is your pick.

And just before I finish of my superhero ramblings, there is one other use for an all-time favourite superhero. Yep Spiderman can help kids learn mindfullness! Find the full activity on Kids Relaxation.

So in summary your child’s endless obsession with Spiderman, Wolverine or even Minions may come in handy. You make be sick of the tug-a-war to wash the never taken off spiderman shirt, or the endless relaying of Despicable Me but these characters offer the gateway to otherwise difficult conversations.

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Art Therapy For Children

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. Continue reading Art Therapy For Children

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Angry Volcano

It’s been a little while since I added an activity to the blog. But an angry volcano is a long time art activity favorite which I am very excited to share. An angry volcano can be crafted many different ways and can be adapted to make a big multi-stage art project or you can whip up the basic materials for a bit of instant fun. I have used this activity countless times in my Art Therapy practice, because it’s interactive and a great conversation starter about anger.

Angry Volcano

Really the sky is the limit with this art activity but here is the basic method and some variations to get you bubbling (!). Younger children may need some extra help, but it’s  suitable for any age.

volcano ingredients

Materials

  • Jar or container of preferred size (a cylinder shape will make it easier to wrap with paper)
  • Lava and dirt coloured crayons or paints
  • A4 paper & laminate*
  • Scissors
  • Sticky tape
  • Bicarbonate Soda (found in the local supermarket)
  • White vinegar
  • Water
  • Red or yellow food colouring or washable red or yellow paint (optional)
  • Spill tray if your inside

Continue reading Angry Volcano

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What to remember about communication and mental health in children

Imagine you have traveled to a foreign country. You wake-up and stroll out into the street of the picturesque little village that will be your home for the next two weeks. You are ready to take on the day as the new Simon Reeves; cultured adventure awaits!  But first you need to just pop into the local supermarket, pharmacy or bank. Maybe you like to travel last minute, or without plans or maybe you’re just poorly organised or communication was last on your list of worries. Either way you haven’t planned ahead for internet access and there is no free Wi-Fi. The backup plan when Google isn’t an option is simple; ask a stranger for help. I mean, surely it can’t be that hard to find someone who speaks English. So you stop and ask a few locals; an elderly man, a young mum with her two children and a couple walking their dog. But they all shrug and smile awkwardly, repeating something in words that you do not understand. No one speaks English. While your stomach is starting to flutter with a rising concern you consider what to do next.  What do you do? I have been in this situation in the outskirts of suburban Rome. I was looking for a supermarket and asked a lot of people. I tried miming, rather hilariously, a shopping bag and eating. My two travel companions tried their own versions and eventually a young woman pointed down the road, signalling some directions, her charade game on point.  To end the story; we never found the supermarket. My sense of direction is atrocious and I had the feeling with all her frowning that the supermarket was more than a short stroll away. At least I learnt about my own assumptions and naivety. Continue reading What to remember about communication and mental health in children

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How the Heart and Brain Help us Heal

Understanding the relay race of our body and brain can help us understand eclectic processes of healing and direct us how to choose the type of therapy we need.

There is an amazing comic illustrator The Awkward Yeti who has designed human organs into characters and I must admit I find endless entertainment through the accuracy of their dialogue, particularly the characters Heart and Brain (find them here). While not entirely surprising, the subject of our biological organs is relevant to the way we psychologically heal. By understanding the process of healing and information processing through our biological mechanisms we can gain a better understanding of how eclectic approaches to therapy can work and where art therapy may fit. Rest assured if you’re not a human biology master, you’ll be fine to read on. This blog would cause a neurologist to cringe at my over-simplification and generous metaphors. Still, I think you’ll get the point and who doesn’t love a little metaphor!

Continue reading How the Heart and Brain Help us Heal

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The New Year and a Memory Jar

Hello 2018! It is nice to meet you.

This time of year I must admit is a bit of a mixed bag for me and probably, in reality, it is the same for most people. It is a time filled with hope, anticipation and gritty determination. And depending on the state of your previous year the new one can be met with anything from welcome to relief to trepidation. Last year was a personally tough one for me so I was happy to see the New Year in and say goodbye to 2017. I am a dreamer and love that in January the whole year stretches ahead with stoic potential. While some are relieved the festivities are over by mid-month, that the loneliness or stress of an empty or chaotic Christmas is tucked neatly behind them, I am always fortunate enough to be a little sad. I travel to my hometown for Christmas each year and I always find it hard to swallow the inevitable ‘goodbye till next time’ when I leave. 10 years on and I find the town and the coastline still has my heart as do my dear family members that still live there. The aqua waters, white sand, lazy sleep ins and family board games have been replaced with the urban sprawl and oven like temperatures of Perth. So as I settle back in to city life, I Continue reading The New Year and a Memory Jar

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Ultimate Play Dough

If your a regular reader of this blog you will find that I love nothing more than to discuss the serious and at times messy topics of art therapy and mental health.
But I have decided to start a regular addition to my posts in the form of a creative activity. I’ll annotate activities, recipes and ideas with emotion related titbits and variations. I am hoping these activities offer something practical for parents, caregivers and anyone who spends a lot of time with children. Creative activities for children help them develop fine motor skills, sequencing and problem solving abilities and encourage development in imagination, sensory processing and confidence. The playful, fun and creative aspects of childhood are often the most essential to development. So without further rambling, my first activity to share is a classic- Play dough!

Play dough

While I had grand plans to test a whole range of play-dough recipes and then tweak them until I had the ultimate recipe, I was in fact saved by The Imagination Tree. Anna’s  award winning blog is all round amazing and I definitely recommend it as a resource. I love this recipe in particular because it is no-cook, soft and lasts a long time (like months and months). It is the only one I use. I usually keep play dough in ziplock bags to keep it fresh, but you could use an airtight container. I have used the recipe without glycerine and it is still is the best recipe!

Continue reading Ultimate Play Dough

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Little Worrier: How Children Express Worry and Anxiety

It took a little Instagram square to get me thinking about the difference between worry and anxiety. I was taking a photograph of a worry doll to caption with ideas on how children can express worries and I started reflecting on some recent conversations about the maze of diagnosis and treatment options for children’s mental health concerns; in particular anxiety in children. The subject matter is too much for one blog post but I thought I would collate a few thoughts on the topic and share a few strategies to help children express worry and anxiety. Continue reading Little Worrier: How Children Express Worry and Anxiety

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Does Art Really Heal?

Can art heal? My answer to one of art therapy’s biggest questions, flavoured with coconut water

As an art therapist I come across a whole range of claims, phrases and titles to do with my profession.  Sometimes I roll my eyes, sigh in frustration or giggle at bold promises. It is not that I am being disrespectful of other professionals it’s just that, well; it can be of a minefield in marketing at the best of times and it becomes even more so with things like art therapy. Why? Because art therapy is still a young practice in Australia and yet to gain mainstream familiarity. This ultimately means marketing has more weight because professionals aren’t only trying to advertise their brand or service but educate people about the profession as well. And the interesting thing is that marketing can influence how we answer questions before we have even had an experience. I find myself writing this article, an odd combination of art therapy and marketing to explore how people might be shaped to have an opinion of art therapy before they have even tried it. By considering how people consume something new we can begin to look at the answer to the question i hear a lot; does art really heal?

Continue reading Does Art Really Heal?

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A Companion to Loneliness

Loneliness is something we all feel at some point in our lives. Of course we all employ many techniques to drown it out; from jam packed social calendars, television marathons and social media updates to over drinking, eating or exercising. It is easy to get trapped in cycles of self-criticism and fruitless goals of perfectionism to drown out the pangs of loneliness. If only we were different: more pretty or handsome, smarter, successful, popular, wealthy or lucky then we would feel less lonely. But the truth is that loneliness comes with the territory, that is, it is part of the human condition.

While I may be able to speak candidly about the topic, I am far from exempt from the aversion commonly felt towards loneliness. Born as one of triplets, being alone was a foreign experience for me for a long time. I shared my mother’s womb with my two sisters, shared a room with either one of them my entire childhood and positioned myself in life to be around people I felt content with. Consequently I have never managed well alone. That is not to say that I can’t do things independently and alone, it is just that I feel my most comfortable and safe with someone I know in contactable proximity. For me being alone and lonely are closely intertwined but they are in fact different experiences. It is very possible to be alone and not lonely and to also be in company and feel lonely. Continue reading A Companion to Loneliness