Curious about the benefits of art therapy, but don’t know where to start? Could you or someone you love potentially improve their lives through the practice, but you’re unsure where to turn? In this article we’ll briefly explore four primary ways in which art therapy can boost emotional intelligence.
Let’s start at the foundation.
What’s Art Therapy?
The American Art Therapy Association’s definition is,
“A mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. A goal in art therapy is to improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal well-being.” (1)
Common Reasons for Art Therapy
While art therapy is used far and wide in countless applications throughout human society, at my practice the individuals I work with generally fall into one of these four categories:
- Children with Learning Disabilities
- Young Adults with ADHD, Bipolar, Depression, (Social) Anxiety
- Adolescents with PTSD
- Younger Parents
With that being said, let’s get to the benefits I’ve seen develop in these people and their children’s lives.
#1: It’s a Means of Communication
But doctor, what if my child can’t speak well? Can they still benefit from art therapy?
Absolutely! Art therapy can be used when a child or young adult has difficulty verbally expressing themselves, or their emotions and thoughts. The autism spectrum is a perfect example of this. Now, when using art therapy to treat any mental illness or mental/emotional imbalance, the activities or exercises themselves take different directions – verbal & nonverbal including painting, music, poetry, etc.
What about a child with a learning disability doc?
In the case where a child can’t adequately express himself/herself, I ask the parent or caregiver to offer the child paint or pen/paper at home especially when the child’s upset (or once they calm down). It gives them an opportunity to express. Parents and kids often find it very useful.
Just be sure give clear instructions to your child beforehand when they’re calm, relaxed and can understand. Try it. See what might happen if you ask them to simply take a piece of paper and draw what comes to their mind.
#2: Safe Expression of Internal Conflict
One of the most difficult things in life to express is internal conflict. How do you process it? Are these positive and productive ways, or?
Kids and adolescents with bipolar/anxiety/depression disorders or even PTSD often experience extreme difficulty processing internal stress. Some understand what they’re going through, and use certain coping skills, while others do not.
The 3 basic steps art therapy seeks to take us through are:
- Identify and recognize our emotions & conflicts.
- Observe them in safe and creative environments.
- Accept, process and resolve the stress.
Art therapy’s like a buffer, or a non threatening pillow, to comfortably think about and explore trauma with the goal being to forget/resolve the experience, or keep it from negatively impacting the present anymore.
#3: Great Supplement for Meds
This is tricky, because for some kids art therapy can be enough. For others, their condition might better benefit from a mixture of art therapy and meds (pharmacological treatment). Still, for others art therapy may not be as beneficial, like for example if they simply don’t respond to creative exercises.
For children where art therapy is beneficial, painting is one of the forms that can be a great addition to their treatment – a supplement to pharmacotherapy.
Because it increases self-confidence, stimulates self-expression, helps in developing learning skills, and amplifies positive coping skills while decreasing stress intensity.
In other words, it’s as beneficial today as it was for our ancient ancestors without modern medicine who drew forms and artistic displays on their cave walls. For them it was predators, natural disasters, ice ages, warring tribes, and so forth that caused them to experience fear and anxiety and process trauma. For youths today, the pressures are different but the benefits of art therapy are the same.
#4: Fosters Self-Awareness & Esteem
Okay, honestly, both of these subjects are somewhat abstract. Have you ever asked yourself, “What exactly is self-esteem?” Let’s use a great definition from University of California, Davis (2):
“Self-esteem is how we value ourselves; it is how we perceive our value to the world and how valuable we think we are to others. Self-esteem affects our trust in others, our relationships, our work – nearly every part of our lives. Positive self-esteem gives us the strength and flexibility to take charge of our lives and grow from our mistakes without the fear of rejection.”
So how does art therapy improve this in a child that’s suffered through abuse or trauma, or is dealing with a serious neuro-chemical imbalance?
- Traumatized children, or young adults, often perceive art as a nonthreatening way to express their inner feelings which may to them be embarrassing, or shameful, or feel risky etc.
- They may be very hesitant to seek “help” from adults, or open up, but art is a fabulous medium for psychiatrists like myself and parents to begin assessing what they’re going through.
Or as Shirly Riley put it in her study Art Therapy with Adolescents (3),
“The art that the adolescent produces can help the therapist gain some idea of the youth’s concerns and life circumstances, especially those situations that are too risky to reveal or too personally embarrassing to relate. This awareness better equips the therapist in efforts to protect and support the adolescent during this turbulent time of life.”
What About Self-Awareness?
It’s critical to be aware of our own thoughts and emotions and how they connect to the body. When we lack self-awareness, often we process conflict and trauma in ways we don’t understand or seem to be in control of. By increasing self-awareness, we empower ourselves.
Bradley Foster in his HuffPost article, “Cultivating Self-Awareness” (4) said,
“Much of our behavior stems from unconscious beliefs or patterns. As long as our behaviors remain unconscious, we are a slave to them. Without an objective awareness of our unconscious desires or behavior we are powerless to alter them, even when they cause us pain again and again.”
Indeed. Art therapy, again, is a safe medium to help us identify, observe and resolve internal conflict. In the process, we learn about ourselves, what drives us to do positive/negative things, and so forth.
Example Exercise: Discovering You
I created an Online Art Course called “Process & Processing” that helps parents integrate basic educational art exercises into their children’s lives. The third exercise is called Discovering You.
During this video session, parents watch their children draw themselves and learn more about what makes them tick in the process. The discussion, or focus, revolves around the fact we all face a number of uncertainties (goals, friendships, sexuality, peer relations, etc.) as we grow up.
The goal is for children to discover their unique characteristics and traits, resulting in a significant boost in self-awareness. In a group setting, it helps children learn that they share many things in common with peers. If you’re really interested in art therapy, take a minute to check it out. Enjoy!