Since the first cave paintings, we humans have found creative ways to express ourselves with art. We naturally draw, paint, and doodle to capture thoughts and feelings. Art has also been used throughout history for healing. Studies show that it creates brain wave patterns that enhance the autonomic nervous system, hormonal balance, and brain neurotransmitters. While doing artistic expressive art, the body's physiology shifts from stressed to serene.
The same for children. It's often easier for a child to talk about pictures than about himself or his feelings (grief, anger, shame, etc.). Drawing and painting will allow your child to express difficult feelings or to disclose what he might not share verbally. His artistic expression can give you a clearer sense of his inner struggle, an insight that will help you guide him.
Drawing also increases your child's awareness of her inner world and creates a window onto that landscape. Art can be a launching point for conversations that reveal her thinking about the world around her.
You don't have to be a trained therapist to use therapeutic art techniques with your child. Just stock up on a variety of supplies—giant rolls of paper, colored paper, crayons, paints, and a variety of markers, including scented, metallic, fat, thin, even markers that change color as they write over another color. Then try the following art exercises to explore new ways to communicate with your child.
Draw a self-portrait. On a large sheet of paper, trace your young child's body. Have her fill it in with her feelings. Happy might be a bright yellow sun near her heart; sad may be blue teardrops coming from her eyes. Older children can design and complete their own. You might be surprised at what and where emotions turn up.
Picture the future. Artwork is also an effective starting point when you're working with clear end-goals, like getting a good night's sleep or reducing a fear. Suggest your child make two drawings—how things are now and how he'd like them to be. Once he can picture where he’d like to be, he can start taking steps to get there. And he can hang his pictures in his bedroom as a reminder of the possible positive future.
Show and tell. After an imaginary journey, such as a walk through a special place she imagines with her eyes shut, have your child draw her experience. The visual rendering gives you both something to look at as she shares. If the drawing illustrates a problem—say, a dangerous goblin or a fire at home—ask her to imagine what might solve the situation. She can even draw the solution right onto her picture.
Talk to the image. Once your child has released his feelings onto paper, he can speak with them. He might use his picture of Worry to ask what it needs to calm down, or to tell it to leave. It's often easier to converse with feelings when they're outside than when they're gnawing away inside, at for example, a stressed-out tummy.
Take artistic action. Although it's a great release when a child can draw her angry, hurt, or upset feelings, pictures don't have to be static. She can erase part of it, or draw over it in “healing” colors with a changeable marker—an immediate transformation that feels magical. She can even rip up or throw away the paper. These actions can offer a hurting child a sense of control and satisfaction.
Capture the memory. The special places your child visits on his imaginary journeys can be personal healing sanctuaries. Hanging pictures of them somewhere private but visible will remind him that he can return whenever the need arises. And drawings of trusted animal friends and wizards may help him remember support is always near.
Accept every drawing. Some kids are hesitant to put their mental pictures to paper; they’re afraid they won’t be good be enough. Reassure your child that anything he creates is fine. Sometimes all that comes are strokes of bold color evolving out of a wonderful or terrible feeling that is finally set free on paper. Praise each one. They are the artifacts of your child's precious inner world.
Charlotte Reznick, PhD is a child educational psychologist, an associate clinical professor of psychology at UCLA, and author of a new book, The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success (Perigee/Penguin2009,www.ImageryForKids.com/book).