What Art Therapy Is/Isn’t and Why It’s Great for Kids

May 27, 2020

A collage of a woman on some kind of floating ice meteoroid staring off into space.
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It’s important to define art therapy and to help distinguish this healing modality as its own profession from what it’s not. The goal for this article is clarifying the meaning and power of true art therapy, especially with children.

Creating or engaging in art may be described by some as feel-good art and crafts, promoting relaxation, a mindful or spiritual experience, a distraction/chance to “numb” things out, or even a self-soothing tool when used as a form of personal “self-help” therapy. While it should be encouraged for all to engage in the arts in any way, art therapy is a much deeper experience that cannot be completed on one’s own.

How Art Therapy is Unique

Art therapy is a mental health profession and an expressive art form. Clients use art media, the creative process, and the resulting product to explore their thoughts and feelings.

Art therapy is…

  • purposeful within a dynamic relationship—each directive/intervention is meaningful, required to be done with a practitioner.
  • intentional, actively helping clients visually express and record experiences, perceptions, feelings, and imaginations while eliciting clients’ inherent capacity for art-making to enhance their physical, mental, emotional well-being.
  • insightful, helping clients gain insight and self-awareness, awakening their own capabilities to resolve and reconcile conflicts/problems to facilitate change, revealing individual differences. It also helps clients develop interpersonal, physical, cognitive, emotional, and social skills for healthy communication:
    • managing behavior and addictions.
    • improving reality orientation.
    • reducing stress.
    • increasing self-esteem and expression.
    • facilitating change.
  • reparative/corrective with non-judgmental roots and the singular goal of improving/restoring a client’s functioning and sense of personal well-being via directives/interventions that externalize their inner world in a safe environment and provide new experiences, even after product completion (focus on process vs product), and right/whole brain integration.
  • a continuum of practice with art as therapy at one end and art psychotherapy at the other; it’s projective and introspective, meaning we’re able to connect and relate to others as well as ourselves through art.
A collage of a woman on some kind of floating ice meteoroid staring off into space.

“Quest” by Rachel Derum

Art therapists…

  • are mostly professionals who hold a degree in art therapy or a related field.
  • are credentialed by the Art Therapy Credentials Board—registration (ATR) is granted upon completion of graduate-level education requirements set by the American Art Therapy Association and 1,000 post-graduate hours or supervised experience by another art therapist.
  • work with people of all ages and impairments in a variety of settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation, psychiatric, medical, residential, educational and assisted-living facilities, as well as in private practice.
  • leverage their clients’ inherent capacity to creatively enhance their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and ability to self-express.
  • have been trained and are skilled in applying various media (drawing, painting, sculpture, and myriad other art forms) and the creative process, and versed in human development, psychological, and counseling theories and techniques, for assessment and treatment; and…
    • are mindful of material and medium choice and application.
    • notice clients’ response/reaction during the creative process by being curious.
    • are trained in insight-oriented questions to inform well-timed interventions, especially with children.
    • have developed specific directives/interventions to use at initial, middle, end stages of treatment.

How Art Therapy is Unique with Children

Art therapy is important when utilized with children because it’s…

  • natural, building on drawing, playing and pretending which are all a part of the “work” with them and their development.
  • creative, encouraging/enhancing purposeful narratives by allowing storytelling via metaphors; they use art to communicate and record their experiences with us in a non-literal way, in a language they’re with which they’re familiar and comfortable..
  • sensory-based, allowing communication on many levels—visual, tactile, kinesthetic—so clients can be seen and heard.
  • non-verbal/safe, serving as a safe vehicle for communicating experiences when words are not enough, too difficult to express, or are even unavailable due to crisis/stress/anxiety; because it lowers defenses and slowly releases disturbing experiences, art is a healthy way to cope compared to holding pain inside.
  • connective; engaging their emotional brain, art promotes positive behavior and emotions, lights up parts of the brain that are still available to use after crisis and helps us understand quickly that there is actually something we can do to feel better in the moment.
  • open-ended/insight-oriented, helping with integration and allowing for curiosity and reflection, which leads to informed interventions/goals—kids respond to indirect questions/statements such as:
    • “I wonder…”
    • “I notice you’re…”
    • “I see that…”

You don’t need to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. It just takes an appreciation for imagination, creativity, and a more dynamic way of viewing yourself and healing.

If you have any questions or want to find out about more specific uses for children, I’ll reply in the comments below.

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