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Art is a means of self-expression, and self-expression through art is a wonderful way to heal a wounded soul. Much like talk therapy, it gives kids a constructive outlet to explore whatever they might be feeling, and provides caregivers a window into the child’s experience. Creative activities are also a great way to combat depression and lift overall mood. The process of creating something can be quite satisfying, filling kids with a sense of pride and empowerment.

“Creative arts are thought to offer children a symbolic means of expressing painful, frightening or embarrassing feeling,” note Tremblay and Israel (1998, p 432). It seems to work in. In one study it was reported that the more a child was able to express emotional trauma through drawings, the less likely he or she would be to suffer from PTSD. (Magwaza et al., 1993) Studies have found that even something as simple as using therapeutic workbooks or coloring books for 30 minutes every week can result in a nearly 20% reduction in PTSD symptoms following a disaster. (Anthes, 2010)

“When I was a kid, my mom did drugs,” says Vernon Davis, a former NFL tight-end for the San Francisco 49ers. “That stuck with me, and I held all that hurt in. Painting is therapeutic; you would be amazed at what art can do for you. … When I painted I would feel like I was free.” (ESPN Magazine, Dec. 10, 2012, p. 23)

This chapter contains instructions for a number of therapeutic art exercises that can be applied to any situation. But keep in mind that art therapy needn’t follow any particular theme. Simply getting kids involved in something creative can be therapeutic in and of itself, even if there’s no grander plan or purpose behind it.

Using Art As a Diagnostic Tool

Art can help your child express their feelings, which means it can also be a wonderful way for you to gain insight about what’s going on inside that busy little head of theirs. Here are some quick tips that will allow you to better probe their feelings:

1. Never guess the picture
Parents have an awful habit of interpreting a child’s artwork before they’ve had a chance to explain. There’s no quicker way to shut down communication than when you say, “Oh, what a lovely flower” and your child responds with “that’s not a flower, it’s a horse!” In other cases, the child will simply change the narrative of what they drew to match your interpretation of it, in which case you don’t get a window into their mind at all. So never, ever try to start the conversation by telling them what their picture is about.

2. Ask the proper questions
Always ask open-ended questions that encourage children to elaborate on their creation:

  •  Can you tell me about your picture?
    • What was your inspiration? What were you thinking about when you drew this?

  •  Can you talk about the people in it? (If this is being used for diagnostic or therapy purposes, you might label the figures, if it’s okay with them)
    • What is happening in this scene?

  •  What are the different characters thinking?
    • What’s going to happen next? What might have happened just before?

3. Add text
Whenever they complete a piece of artwork ask if they’d like to write a story to go along with it. You can have younger children dictate the story to you as you record their thoughts on paper.

4. Do it together
Whenever possible, participate in these projects alongside your child and talk with each other as you’re creating your art. Don’t set out a specific agenda for these discussions, or it will come off as forced and can make kids uncomfortable. Just talk about whatever comes to mind, and meaningful conversations will crop up eventually. Also, let your child do most of the talking, and don’t say things that will lead them in a certain direction. For example, if you say, “I’m drawing a picture of the bad man who came to our house,” you’ve just given them a perception to adopt as their own, and not a very constructive one. In fact, if kids ask a question that would require you to give a suggestive answer, its best to say something like, “it’s a surprise for when I’m done, because I want to be surprised by what you’ve created. What do you think we should convey?

Remember: you’re merely trying to get kids to open up about their thoughts. Don’t get carried away inventing crazy Freudian interpretations for their pictures, or looking for some deeper symbolic meaning.

You can find instructions for specific art therapy exercises in our eBook: Child Trauma & Recovery. It’s just $9.99 and all proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need.

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