A mother brought in her 7-year old daughter for an evaluation because the young girl had been experiencing nightmares and difficulty sleeping. She would cry very easily. She became moody. The things that she used to enjoy doing, she hated. She started having tantrums, and school became more difficult. Her mom didn’t understand what was going on, but she was desperate for help.
After speaking with them both together and separately, I referred them to Art and Play Therapy, which was very helpful. We were able to determine that this child has been experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. She struggled because she didn’t understand what happened or what she had done to deserve her experiences.
Increasingly, more young people are suffering from a mental illness or a chronic medical illness. While most medical illnesses are visible and easier to spot, mental illness isn’t and can go unnoticed, undiagnosed, and untreated. Because of these problems, new innovative approaches, such as art therapy, are being used to reach these children.
What is Art Therapy?
Art therapy is a method of communication through creative or artistic expression when words and verbal communication fail to express thoughts, feelings, emotions, and perceptions. It is a form of psychotherapy used to guide children in self-exploration. Children are naturally creative, so it’s often easier to get them to create artwork than it is to get them to talk and answer questions. Through different art media, children can record their experiences and share them.
Sometimes, children don’t understand what is making them feel a certain way. Art therapy helps the therapist get to the heart of the problem. It’s a means for children to communicate their needs, desires, fears, etc., even if they don’t fully realize them and is often the least scary way for them to explore their feelings.
Therapy can also serve as an escape. It can give children a bit of control back; they can lead the therapist and take them on a journey through their own narrative, especially when their life circumstances are out of their control.
There is truly no age limit with art therapy and no ability limitations as each program is customized to the meet the needs of the child. For example, a child who has never picked up a crayon or colored pencil can still do art therapy and be eased into the process while they acquire a new skill.
Art therapy has been utilized for many years and is known to be helpful and very effective in treating a wide range of mental and physical conditions.
Some of the conditions with which art therapy can help include:
• Death of a family member or friend
• Learning disabilities
• Emotional issues like fear of abandonment or phobias
• Improve cognitive abilities
• Challenges of serious diseases like cancer
• Childhood trauma involving physical, mental, or sexual abuse
• Mental disorders
• Physical disabilities
• Behavioral problems
• Self-esteem and body image issues
• Traumatic experiences associated with medical treatment
• Stress and anxiety related to hospitalization and chronic illness
How Does It Work?
Art therapists are psychotherapists who are specially trained to incorporate the process of art creation and different types of art media into their therapeutic process. The therapist and the child will look at the art together and decipher meanings of the pictures. From this, they then can work through the issues that inspired the art that the child has created.
For most children, art therapy works, but because every child is different, other modalities of therapy may work better. The most important thing for therapy to be effective is for the therapist to develop a rapport with the child and to establish trust. If a child is afraid, unengaged, or simply doesn’t like the therapist, then it will not be effective. So it’s important to assess a child for their comfort level.
If someone you love is struggling and you think art therapy may be helpful, start by discussing art therapy with your primary care provider. Also, talk with family or friends as they may have used a therapist in the past and can give you valuable information. It is also important to speak with your child or loved one about your concerns and about the potential for therapy. If there is no buy in from the person suffering, then therapy will not work.
It’s important to pick the correct therapist so. Don’t be afraid to set up a meeting prior to initiating therapy. You will want to find and choose a professional who has extensive experience treating children with the same or similar issues with which your child has struggled.
Dr. LaTonya Russell is a board-certified pediatrician with Sentara Family Medicine & Pediatrics at Sentara Edinburgh in Chesapeake. She is fluent in both Spanish and English and is passionate about educating children on health and wellness. She has special interests in treating ADHD, depression, and adolescent health concerns.