Art therapy proves itself as a powerful tool, both for treating kids in crisis and for preventing problems in others, by unleashing inner powers of expression.
By Sara S. Stephens
Melissa adopted Kevin when he was an infant. Now Kevin is six years old. Melissa has started communicating with him about the fact that he’s adopted, and Kevin is having a difficult time adjusting. He can’t concentrate, he demands a lot of attention, and he does not finish tasks.
Eleven-year-old Suzy’s parents fight a lot, and they do it in front of their daughter. She recently left the house to attend a school function without asking her parents’ permission. She is actively seeking negative attention.
Kevin and Suzy are struggling with very different problems. But they both are working through their issues with the help of Houston-based art therapist Angelina Rodriguez (www.therapybyangelina.com/). Kevin has been attending Angelina’s Young Picassos art therapy sessions for eight weeks now. At the start of therapy, he would apply himself to an activity for three minutes, then want to do something else. “I had to help him find the value in finishing a product, helping him build intrinsic self-worth through extrinsic motivators,” Angelina says. Only two months into therapy, Kevin’s teachers note that he is able to complete tasks, his parents observe that he does not require constant attention, and his apparent self-worth continues to rise. Angelina sees Kevin’s progress visually in his drawing, where he is able to express that families are different, and that we all come from different places.
“He’s now having some self acceptance,” Angelina says, adding that Kevin expresses himself verbally, too, and that his expression helps enlighten and build courage in the other children in his group therapy session.
Angelina had been counseling Suzy’s parents about their troubled relationship for a few months. Angelina suggested they bring Suzy in for art therapy after listening to the couple’s problems and hearing about Suzy’s changing behavior. “She had gotten to the point where she felt she couldn’t share information with her parents, and that it wasn’t even safe to ask their permission for things, because they were not available to her,” Angelina says. “They were too caught up in their own drama, and [Suzy] had lost her voice.” The art that Suzy created during therapy brought her parents to tears. Like many adults, they hadn’t realized when they were in the heat of the moment arguing that a child was present, and that she heard everything. What children hear impacts them profoundly, and in Suzy’s case, the effects were bad and getting worse. Thanks to art therapy, Suzy is freeing her voice and herself, and she is learning to communicate with her parents again, as her parents learn to communicate with each other.
Whether taken as a preventative measure or as a healing treatment for a trauma (like sexual abuse), art therapy presents an ideal means for helping children, according to Angelina. “Children don’t have a lot of coping skills, especially if the parent doesn’t have them either,” she says. Often, when families experience challenges—divorce, military deployment, moving, for example—kids aren’t asked about or aren’t given space to create and share their feelings. They often feel left out and in the middle, and this is when they can act out. Because they lack the vocabulary and emotional maturity to express themselves, their behavior changes for the worse, perhaps manifesting as bullying or being bullied, an inability to focus, or social isolation. Angelina’s art therapy environment is set up in a studio, where patients have access to every material for just about every means of creative expression, from drawing, to sculpting, to painting, and even collage work.
For kids, the therapy comes naturally. They pick up the art tools and start. And this is when Angelina embarks on a discovery process about the kids’ feelings. “I want to know what they know about feelings,” she says. Sometimes she has the kids draw feelings using colors, picking a color that shows how they feel when they’re upset, for example. “Art is in the eye of the beholder,” she explains. “There may be a reason why, for one child, the color yellow means he’s upset, and for others, it represents happiness. Maybe during a family dispute the color yellow was relevant, someone was wearing a yellow shirt, or the color was somehow dominant in his memory.” As the children define their colors, they start defining emotions, and they embark on a path of healing and growth. A child who is being bullied can be consumed by fears of going to school. In an art session, Angelina might ask this child to depict how it feels when he’s being bullied, by doing anything from scribbling to building a clay form. In doing this, Angelina says, the child begins to release the fear he’s been holding on to, and is able to talk more easily by having an image he can relate to. “He can remove himself emotionally just for a moment and have some security about talking about a very real fear,” she says. And this is the foundation of art therapy—bringing thoughts and ideas to life through images, which are of primary importance to any experience. “It’s how we imagine things. It’s how we feel things,” Angelina says. “The therapy affects your performance, your beliefs and your trust, and it is very empowering.”
Angelina stresses that, although many people come to her in a time of crisis, the format of Young Picassos helps even those kids who are not in an inflamed emotional state. “It’s more preventative,” she explains. “It’s a laboratory of life in a safe setting that helps children communicate emotions, express their differences, and develop an understanding of empathy at early ages, so they become productive adults.”
Art Therapy for a Joyful Holiday Season
For many people, the holidays leave us caught up in the media and commercials that paint a very specific picture of how our season should look: family gathered around the turkey, dressed nice, with grandparents smiling warmly as the children pitter patter about the house singing Christmas carols. But that’s not every family, and this disconnect can lead to depression in both children and adults. They may have expectations that are far removed from their reality, and the disparity can result in feelings of inadequacy. Angelina suggests some easy ways to integrate art and creativity into your holidays to help keep communication strong and the cheer flowing all season long.
1. Volunteer with your family. Reach out to your community, social organizations, or religious events. Sit around the table and make holiday cards for the local nursing home. Then go as a family to deliver the cards. You’re guaranteed to get as much as you give.
2. Write or draw expressions of appreciation. This can be done with collages, drawings or poems. Capture what you appreciate or love about the other person. Do this for family members, teachers, coaches, and anyone who plays a positive role in your life. (Teachers are especially important—remember that your kids spend eight hours a day with these folks, and parents need to help kids honor these relationships).
3. Paint with your kids. Children love to see their parents do art. It’s the easiest form of communication for a child, and as adults, we get away from it for many reasons—maybe because we don’t think we’re good enough. Put aside those fears, and get messy and creative with your kids. It’s fun, and you’ll be amazed at what this shared time does for your relationship.
4. Find any way to be creative as a family. Plant flowers or an herb garden, and enjoy the fruits of your labor together; take holiday photos, and turn them into a calendar to give as gifts; or decorate the house, with your kids’ input. Their ideas might not come from the pages of House Beautiful, but your kids will take pride in your involving them, and your house will be happier and all the more beautiful for it.