Art Therapy with Children

An Article for Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, May 7th
May 4, 2015 11:45 AM ET

Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is an opportunity for Art Therapists to talk about the challenges kids face and how we can help. Art Therapists work with children in schools, residential and outpatient treatment programs, homeless shelters, healthcare facilities, and in private practice. Children who must cope with mental illness, trauma, homelessness, learning differences, behavior problems, autism spectrum disorders, and a variety of medical conditions benefit from their work with skilled art therapists.

Art-making is integral to human culture and cognitive development. Because it starts with the creative process, art therapy is especially good at tapping into a young person’s strengths. An artwork expressing heartfelt emotions begins with the courage to allow what is hidden to take form. Creating that form takes not only courage but also strength and skill: planning, organizing, decision-making, drawing, painting, composing, reflecting and revising. The art therapist, both an artist and a skilled listener, offers support, advice, and encouragement, and bears witness to the transformation. Young clients feel heard and understood, and art-making helps them tell their stories.

Almost twenty-four years ago I started an art therapy program for pediatric cancer patients and their families. The patients and families I work with are my teachers—they show me what it is like to be a kid with cancer and what art therapy can do to help. The first thing I learned is that kids with cancer are normal kids dealing with extraordinary challenges. They need help expressing their feelings and fears, coping with all they must endure, and processing the experience of being a kid with cancer.

Though many young patients intuitively try to protect their parents by being “good,” not complaining, and enduring countless needles and tests with a stiff upper lip—working creatively opens the door to symbolic communication. A monster made of clay can’t hurt anybody, but it can give form to a young person’s anger and disappointment at being sidelined by cancer.

Supportive interaction with a trained art therapist helps young patients voice their concerns and find ways to cope with long, boring hours tethered to an IV pole. At the art table kids can let loose and just be kids, make friends, make a mess, and support each other through the ups and downs of treatment.

Reflecting on her cancerous tumor, a teenage patient made a clay whistle and named it “Senor Tumor,” a comical, mustachioed personification of her cancer. Her younger sister made a whistle in the form of “Olaf,” from the movie Frozen, shown in the process of melting away, just as the chemo was melting the tumor. Their little brother watched and rolled red play-doh into a ball, added googly eyes and named it “the rock in my sister’s tummy.” As he worked, he asked the art therapist and his sister questions about the “rock,” what her chemo was for, and how she felt. In art therapy, humor and metaphor made a life-threatening tumor into a funny little “Senor,” a snowman being melted away by chemotherapy, and a “rock” that could be talked about and understood. (see photos above)

Art therapists make a real difference in the lives of young people and their families—helping them tell their stories, believe in themselves, and develop the strengths and skills they need to meet the challenges they face.