Art Therapy Can Help Your Child Manage Her Emotions Better

Takeaway: Art therapy is a powerful tool to help children bring their inner emotional world out into the open. And in the process, they learn to regulate their emotions and express them in healthy ways. It’s a free-flowing, creative experience that can help tackle issues more traditional therapies can’t.

Emotions and feelings guide us in ways that logic and rational thinking can’t.

We often assume that logic and rational thinking are the best decision-making tools. But our emotions and feelings are just as powerful. (Emotions are our body’s immediate response to any stimulus, while feelings are our mind’s interpretation of these emotions.) Let’s look at an example of this duo at work. Say a child wakes up in the morning and notices her mother sitting beside her. The visual stimulus (of seeing her mother) and the auditory stimulus (of hearing her mother’s voice) trigger a release of ‘emotion’ chemicals (e.g., oxytocin) in her brain. Her mind experiences this release as the emotion ‘happiness’ and translates it into the feeling of love for her mum. So, concrete sense stimuli (sight and sound) trigger an emotion that fuels a feeling, which gets the child to sit up and hug her mum. All with no thinking involved.

Emotions are so powerful that children start regulating them even as toddlers.

Emotions often work subconsciously, but we still have to control and manage them. This emotional regulation helps children stay calm in stressful situations or cope with feelings like anxiety and sadness. Think of how many emotional triggers your child experiences daily – a poor test score, a classroom bully, a hilarious TV show, etc. If she can’t regulate this rollercoaster of emotions, she’ll be stuck in continuous cycles of sadness, terror, and joy. And this unpredictability can overwhelm her –  affecting her friendships, home life, and school success.

Emotional regulation comes down to a series of teachable skills.

Emotional regulation might seem complicated, but it comes down to a short list of teachable skills. For instance: spotting emotions as they arise, naming them (e.g., ‘happiness’, ‘sadness,’ etc.), accepting them (even if they’re unsettling), choosing how to express them, and more. These primary skills then need secondary, supportive skills for dealing with other people’s emotions. For instance: learning to interpret body language, empathising with others’ experiences, negotiating a win-win outcome for each interaction, and so on.

Here’s where art therapy can help – bypassing the rational mind and tapping into our subconscious emotions.

Traditional forms of therapy use conversation to explore a child’s subconscious mind. But they assume that she can (or wants to) use words to describe her inner world. And this isn’t the ideal starting point for many children, especially younger ones. Instead, we can use art as a therapeutic tool to help them explore/express their emotions and connect with their therapist. Rather than asking a child to tell us what’s wrong or how she’s feeling, we’re simply encouraging her to draw, paint, sculpt, dance, etc. – enjoying and losing herself in the experience. Note that this is fun first and therapeutic second. All the unearthing and exploring of deep-seated feelings happens effortlessly as a by-product of creating art. And once we’ve traced the roots of troublesome emotions, we can explore them with more art therapy or switch to regular child psychotherapy.

The beauty of this approach is that it doesn’t have to be overly structured or complicated.

Popular therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are goal-oriented and structured – things many children need. But others respond better to a more organic and flexible process. Art therapy offers a balance of both. Children can be spontaneous and free when creating art, while the therapist is analytical and structured in reviewing the art pieces later. Best of all, the simplest tools can lead to the most transformative experiences. For instance, a therapist can design a pen-and-paper drawing task to tap into the powerful visual image-making centres of a child’s brain. It could be as simple as asking her to draw her feelings – giving them names, shapes, and speech bubbles with unique sounds. Alternatively, she could create a collage using magazine cutouts, talking through their thoughts while working.

This ‘nonartistic art’ shifts focus from the art to the emotions behind the art.

With practise, children learn that art therapy is about connecting with their emotions, not creating masterpieces. So, it’s art, but without needing to be artistic. What matters is creating a clear, ‘outside’ version of a vague, ‘inside’ feeling. There’s something about this single-minded focus on self-expression and creativity that loosens children up, turning off their mental filters and bringing up things they’d have never tackled otherwise. And by giving their emotions a physical form, they get a new perspective on old problems.

Children work with emotions during these sessions, but they develop other skills, too.

Art therapy teaches children to explore, understand, and control their emotions. But there’s so much more to it. For instance, detailing an art piece forces your child to slow down and live in the moment. And making decisions about which art tools to use and how to use them becomes a mini-lesson in creative thinking and problem-solving. Further, art lets your child express opposing thoughts and feelings in one art piece, so she learns that life is complicated and messy, not simple and tidy. And finally, creating art can challenge and develop her motor skills (e.g., hand-eye coordination), visual-spatial skills (e.g., imagining what her completed clay model will look like), and artistic ability.

For more on using art therapy to help your child, consider contacting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice is happy to help you explore your child’s art therapy options. We offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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