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The Wide World of Art Therapy
Effects on Children
A group of young children sit together around a rectangular table. Pieces of paper, pencils, and some markers are placed in front of them. They begin to draw and paint, and in a matter of a few minutes each child has put together a sequence of pictures that all tell a different story. Each drawing is a snapshot of the child’s point of view, through symbols, they can indicate their perspectives that give better understanding of some behaviors or beliefs. At early ages, most children often lack the language skills to speak in detail about issues they may be having or the emotions they may be feeling. Art therapy gives them a way to express and explore their inner selves and provides an outlet for externalizing complex feelings. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy which encourages free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modeling. Each child is different, but being able to visually communicate and record experiences and feelings can be a helpful way to stabilize overwhelming emotions and develop coping strategies. It can also help them feel more understood or accepted. Art therapy can provide children from all backgrounds with a valuable way to express themselves through artistic and creative techniques as a method of coping and bettering their development.
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Children, regardless of age, may not have the language skills to express themselves, however they still have a voice. Art tends to bring a sense of calm to the body and can positively impact the mindset, interpretation of surroundings and emotional state. Art is important for any child’s development due to the fact it helps with social, cognitive, and emotional growth. In an article from Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute it states, “Expressive art therapy can enhance social development by providing support without judgement from peers, parents and the therapist. It gives children the opportunity to appreciate differences between people and accept each individual’s perceptions” (“Benefits”). Looking back at the children sitting around the table, each picture tells its own story through the imagination of each child. If each child were to share out what they created, then they would be bettering their social skills by being able to learn and understand a little more about each other. Art also can help these children to develop comprehensive thinking capabilities due to the interaction of complex thought processes. In the same article it states, “On a deeper level, art actually seems to have an impact on the brain’s neural connections, which act as the wiring for learning” (“Benefits”). This shows that while these children were working on their artwork, they were learning different concepts such as colors and shapes and understanding patterns, as well as learning how to make observations about the world around them. In addition, they are also learning how to draw meaning from visuals and being able to communicate those meanings to one another. High school art teacher Carly Delrosso provides a first hand example by stating, “to me I feel that art is important for development because it gives students a form of expression. In the past I have been able to see how art affects my students as well. Sometimes they add personal touches to their art to express feelings through symbols in a way no one else has to know about” (Delrosso). Even though her students are a little older, this still provides a good example of how any form of art can give children or high school students a positive outlet to express emotions and bring a calm sense to the body. It continues to be a great way to build child’s imagination and creativity in order to help them discover who they are and how to engage their senses.
Art therapy has also proven to be a successful form of treatment for special education students and kids with other behavioral, emotional or psychological issues. This type of therapy can be considered a psychotherapeutic service. It can present its own set of unique stressors and challenges as a child with special needs learns material manipulation, focus and how to nurture tangible relationships. An article from the Masters in Special Education Degree Program, it states, “Adding such creative therapy to other forms of counseling can aid in the learning of coping skills that are often lacking in conditions like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Conduct Disorder” (“How is Art”). This is extremely beneficial due to the fact that it helps the child replace behaviors that have been associated with negative emotions or situations with positive ones. Over time, these new actions will become the primary reaction to specific circumstances, and the child’s responses will improve. The article also states, “populations such as those with mental retardation who are often over-reliant on adult and authority figures for guidance and behavioral clues have been found to gain more realistic perspectives on the world and improved self-expression through their artistic endeavors combined with therapeutic counseling” (“How is Art”). The shows how expression through art is a way to help these kids feel a sense of normalcy without judgment, while allowing them to show their individual personality and bring attention to their strengths. Art therapy focuses on a child with special needs by teaching the child new skills while simultaneously limiting other environmental distractions and unproductive behavior. Also at the same time, these skills can be used to help children dealing with PTSD through similar methods.
Child abuse is widely recognized as a serious problem, not only because it results in long-term trauma reactions, but also because it involves an abuse of power by adults over children in care. Violence and assault to children results in attachment, mood, and behavioral disorders as well as acute or posttraumatic stress disorders, among other problems. Art therapy-a form of intervention thought to be effective in the treatment of trauma disorders- is being increasingly used to address child abuse and is often a primary form of therapy with children who are recovering from physical or sexual assault, verbal abuse, and neglect. In the article, Art Therapy Helps Abused Children, Tamara Herl, an art therapist who works in Kansas states, “I think the greatest value of art therapy with children who have been abused or neglected is that it provides an opportunity to give voice to their pain. The images they create provide tangible proof of progress that has been made and this can be especially helpful on days when children feel discouraged about their progress” (Shoykhet, et al). Also in Kelly Puent’s essay on art therapy she states, “creative arts and shared life storybook activities help children and caregivers develop a sense of safety and emotional support, helping parents and children to tolerate the integration of traumatic memories, restore hope and help develop the ability to trust in positive emotional relationships”(Puent). This shows how art therapy allows children to externalize the sensations that they experienced from a traumatic event, making them not only aware of their feelings, but also enabling them to safely communicate their experiences. It has had the potential to safely address the needs of children suffering from PTSD and trauma through its flexibility, and its ability to positively affect change in the brain. The research into neuroscience has also shown that trauma is a sensory experience, not a cognitive experience. Because of this, therapy interventions must include sensory activities such as drawing and painting. There is also evidence that trauma is experienced in the mid or lower brain. These parts of the brain are responsible for emotions and survival instincts. The traumatic event and the resulting PTSD symptoms that children experience tend to also disrupt their psychological and emotional development. Therefore, a child’s developmental age may be lower than his or her chronological age, suggesting that a therapist must use techniques that are appropriate for the child’s developmental age. Children with this diagnosis need therapies that will also help to build or rebuild child and caregiver relationships and self regulation. Not only is there a need to recreate secure attachments, but care must also be given towards using therapy techniques that will not re-traumatize the child. Art therapy is proven to be an approach that meets these needs.
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Art therapy continues to be beneficial to children because it also offers a way to assess and treat hospital patients by entering into the world of creative representation and symbolism. Jennifer Moyer states in her article, “ One of the most beneficial aspects of art therapy is that it helps reduce the stress of being in a hospital setting and has been shown to be an effective way to help children cope with having a chronic illness” (Moyer Darr). This shows how patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer, sickle cell disease and other blood disorders, and autoimmune disorders often must deal not only with acute pain that signals a problem in need of treatment, but also chronic pain that may be an ever present part of life. Art therapy offers patients a proactive tool for coping with pain that is not fully relieved by medication. She continues to state, “When physically ill children make art, it often validates what they are feeling and experiencing. By creating art about their illness, trauma or medical procedures, children are able to put some distance between themselves and their medical issues”(Moyer Darr). The shows how art is also used as a way for these patients to demonstrate what they are feeling. If a child seems to have unusual behavioral problems or an extreme emotional reaction to diagnosis or treatment, an art-based assessment can help better understand that patient. In a short video uploaded by the Teapot Trust organization, one parent states, “My daughter used to get incredibly distressed over blood tests, and the only thing that sort of appeased her was to give some art to do, either before the event or after the event” (“Art Therapy-”). One patient also states, “It’s quite good having an art therapist because when my mom sometimes has to talk to the doctors and I have nothing to do, so they keep me busy while my mom is talking” (“Art Therapy-”). These first hand experiences demonstrate how this form of therapy can promote a sense of comfort and normalization, support positive coping with hospitalization, and can foster self-expression and communication. Art therapy in the medical setting allows for the potential of humanizing the healthcare experience as well as empowering patients to engage their intuitive in the work of getting well.
Art therapy provides children either dealing with mental disorders and chronic illnesses or not, with a valuable way to express themselves through artistic and creative techniques in order to cope and improve their development. Before children are capable of putting their feelings and thoughts into words, they are capable of illustrating what they think, feel, and wish for through drawings. This is a beneficial way that art therapy allows children to communicate their inner experiences with others. The creation of art and the use of art therapy has been a method of healing throughout history in a variety of cultures, and has been increasingly studied and refined to help individuals process their mental health needs. This form of therapy also provides different forms of benefits depending on the children’s condition but overall is a great and growing way to better the child’s development. For the future, it is important that children sit down every once and while to draw or paint a picture.
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