Using Art to Heal
Art therapy can help troubled kids express their feelings.
My arm [taps] into what is inside my head and then [puts]it out on paper.”
Ever wondered about the meaning behind the kids’ artwork hanging on your fridge? Do your son’s fierce monsters represent anything? What could the picture of your daughter’s house with no windows signify? You may even have tried to analyze the pictures to find out more about your child.
It is true that pictures can say something about the artist. In fact, pictures can make profound statements about a person’s inner life. Our thoughts are formed in images. Much of memory is contained in picture form. Pictures, or images, may be closer to the truth than words.
Because of this, children who are asked to talk about emotions often find it difficult. They struggle to find appropriate words. When painful feelings are kept inside and not expressed, the result can be depression, confusion, anxiety, hopelessness, and anger. Art making helps children tap into those difficult feelings and memories in order to work through them.
Window to feelings
Many artists recognize the healing power of art making. For them, creativity can be a means of coping with physical and emotional suffering. Pablo Picasso said that painting was a forum for speaking about problems. Frida Kahlo painted self-portraits that depicted her physical and emotional pain. Georgia O’Keeffe said, “I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way… things I had no words for.”
Art making can have the same effect in a therapeutic environment and is especially helpful for children. Art therapy can help kids who suffer from low self-esteem, sadness, bullying, anger, hyperactivity, anxiety, illness, and loss, as well as life changes such as divorce, moving house, and/or a change of school. It’s particularly beneficial for kids who have experienced or witnessed violence, abuse, or other trauma because words may be too painful.
How does it work? Art therapists provide kids with a wide variety of art materials, such as paint, clay, markers, pastels, collage materials and found objects. Depending on the situation, children are given the freedom to create spontaneously or asked to do something specific, such as a self-portrait or a family portrait. However, the child does not have to have artistic ability – it is the process that facilitates healing.
The artwork and the child’s creativity in producing the artwork provide the art therapist with insight on how to support and guide the healing process. While therapist and child interact with each other, they also interact with the artwork. Children often find it easier to talk about something tangible, like their artwork, than about more abstract ideas like feelings. Their art is a window into their feelings.
The art therapy environment is safe and child-friendly. Working with art supplies is familiar to kids, so the process is comfortable for them. It is the kids who set the therapeutic pace while the art therapist facilitates discussion based on cues from the art-making process.
How kids benefit
A child can benefit from art therapy in many ways. It can help alleviate painful emotions and anxiety, reduce stress, improve coping skills, resolve conflicts, enhance social skills and behaviour, and provide a better understanding of self. Art therapy can also be soothing, calming, healing and nurturing. Additionally, studies show that creative experiences enhance brain functioning, increase the release of serotonin (the chemical that alleviates feelings of depression), and improve blood pressure, heart rate and respiration.
Often art therapy is used in conjunction with other forms of treatment. For example, art therapy has proven to be effective for kids undergoing cancer treatment.
As a parent, you are naturally concerned for the well-being of your children, but you may not know how to help them cope with a difficult issue. Art therapy is a tool that can help.
About Art Therapists
Art therapists are professionals with post graduate training in art psychotherapy. As members of Ontario’s psychotherapy and art therapy associations, they are guided by a code of ethics and by standards of professional practice.
- Photo credit: Gerri Weatherbee