Art therapy allows children to mirror life experiences and express their inner feelings
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 04/30/2014
My mother died six months ago, and everyone who knew her felt a profound loss, as she was a truly, special, wonderful woman. She lived with us for the last six years of her life and our daughter, Harper (age 5), was extremely close to her. Ever since my mother died, our happy and good-natured little girl has become withdrawn, sad and angry. At first, we thought she was just going through a normal grieving process and tried to be supportive. Her teachers, however, not only believe she’s depressed but that her unhappiness has gone on far too long and is affecting her learning and her ability to be social with other children.
The school recommends that Harper be clinically evaluated and suggested a particular child counselor who does excellent work with other children, primarily with art therapy. The counselor does a little sculpture and sand tray but mostly drawing. My husband and I believe in regular psychotherapy but know almost nothing about art therapy. We’ll do anything to help Harper, but it seems like we’d be spending a lot of money just to have her draw pictures.
Could you explain to us how the process works and how it could help our daughter?
I can understand how child art therapy might seem like nothing more than “playing,” but a lot of important psychological work actually takes place in this form of treatment. Art therapy can be a natural way of communication for a child and, accordingly, this therapy modality will be a natural expression of the painful feelings Harper has locked up inside.
Initially, she may be reluctant and rigid and approach the art materials cautiously, avoiding making decisions or answering questions. She may also be secretive, fearful, timid or aggressive and even try to get the therapist to draw or speak for her. The objective of art therapy is for Harper to become free, spontaneous, decisive and self-expressive while establishing a trusting relationship with her therapist. As that relationship solidifies, the emotional focus will become sharper/clearer and less diffused/undifferentiated. In turn, it will become easier for Harper to express exact memories that are troubling her and, after a while, express positive feelings as well as negative ones.
Drawing is a therapeutic tool frequently used by child psychotherapists. A therapist, for example, might have Harper draw herself as an animal, imagine her family as animals, and then draw that. The therapist might then have Harper describe particular aspects of the drawing, pretend to be specific parts of the picture, and ask Harper questions such as whether she has ever felt like the animal does. Art therapists are trained to pay attention to all kinds of significant nuances such as missing parts or spaces in a drawing, color selection and the line weight in a drawing. The therapist will also note Harper’s body posture, facial expression, breathing and tone of voice throughout the process.
Sand tray is another common tool used with children. This utilizes a shallow tray filled with sand and small representational people, animals, cars, trees, etc. with which the child can create her own imaginative world. Through guided imagery, storytelling and fantasy Harper will be able to mirror her life experience and express her inner feelings.
When you first call the counselor, express your concerns and request that the process be explained clearly to you. It’s also important that you and your husband meet with the therapist frequently to share Harper’s progress. It’s the counselor’s responsibility — and the major goal of art therapy — to create a place for Harper where her feelings and perceptions are fully accepted so that she can ultimately understand her emotions, work through her grieving and become more at peace. By exhibiting genuine empathy toward Harper, especially in her current vulnerable state, a positive alliance can be developed between them. Once your daughter realizes that her feelings can be freely expressed, better understood and accepted, she’ll most likely start to heal. The therapist’s role is to be supportive and sensitive to what Harper is feeling and to respect her for who she truly is and the deep sense of loss she is experiencing.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.