Source: Bangalore Mirror
Art therapists on how children can be made to visually express their experiences and feelings, and why it is vital
In the 2007 film Taare Zameen Par, eight-year-old Ishaan Nandkishore Awasthi is considered by many, including his parents and teachers, to be a difficult child who has trouble with his lessons and is a typical underperformer. Frequent comparisons to his older brother and being berated for his poor academic performance drive him to depression and despair, to the point where Ishaan even contemplates suicide. It is only when Ishaan’s art teacher, upon reviewing his art, determines that Ishaan’s failings are rooted in dyslexia that Ishaan finally receives the instruction he needs to realise his true potential –as a child and as an artist.
The movie marked the first time that the importance of art in a child’s growing years was acknowledged by mainstream media, a move that has been lauded by psychologists, educators and mental health professionals. Today, art has come a long way from its former perception as a leisurely extra-curricular pursuit for children, and is being recognised as a powerful tool to detect and heal emotional trauma and developmental disabilities in kids.
Anupriya Das Singh, a psychotherapist and counsellor specialising in child-parent relationships, explains, “Art therapy helps us to reach out to children faster as compared to other forms of therapy. Children are able to express themselves to a greater extent than their oral vocabulary permits – children are often not comfortable with being questioned, or may not understand or be able to articulate why they are engaging in specific behaviours. Art therapy gives children a safe space to come to terms with their emotions and open up without the fear of being judged for their expression.”
Counselling psychologist Kunjal Shah adds, “Children’s art contains several metaphors for the events and emotions that they encounter in their daily life. It is a much easier medium for them to express themselves, since they are not equipped with the language or abstract reasoning required to communicate their mental state.”
How does it work?
Art therapists encourage children to use art media and their own creative process to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, reduce anxiety and develop their social skills. The symbolic self-expression contained in drawings or paintings created by children are interpreted by the therapist and further discussed with the child. Singh says, “The child is offered art materials of various types and encouraged to explore them. Often, the therapist will combine storytelling with drawing, where the therapist will encourage the child to discuss what they have drawn. This could also be a collaborative process where the beginning of the story is given by the therapist, and the child is encouraged to add their inputs. The role of the therapist is neutral so that the story is led by the child. This helps the child to better narrate the incidents that stand out positively or negatively. For instance, if a child is being scolded or bullied, the child may create a story that has monsters.”
Art therapy can also be used to guide the child towards positive emotions or behaviours. Farzana Suri, a Mumbai-based victory coach, explains, “If a child is depressed and is primarily using the colour blue in their paintings because they find it soothing, I will encourage them to gradually introduce colours that they may not initially be comfortable with. This helps us to create subtle shifts in their mood.” Suri adds, “Agitated children may tend to use a lot of red or black in their art.”
Art also plays an important role in promoting mental and emotional growth in children with developmental disabilities such as autism. Muddita Guptha Thakurani, an expressive art therapist, says, “ By presenting an alternative to verbal communication, art therapy plays an important role in bringing down the stress levels, anger and frustration in these children. Autistic children also tend to struggle with social issues, such as interpreting tone of voice and
facial expression, and may feel uncomfortable relating to others. Working with a therapist can be more comfortable since the focus is directed on the child’s art, creating a powerful bond without the initial need for face-to-face interaction.”
Art and the family
Parents can also use art to better understand and respond to their young children. Suri recommends establishing a daily ritual where parents and children spend some time drawing their day. This, she believes, can serve as a starting point for important family conversations. She adds, “Children can be encouraged to create an art journal instead of a written diary. Not every child is kinaesthetic – this process helps children with a limited or developing vocabulary to effectively address their thoughts. Parents can also consider creating family journaling sessions where the entire family talks about how their day or week was.”
Thakurani believes art therapy can additionally enhance a child’s confidence, and vastly improve their academic performance.
Learn to decode
Children’s drawings can tell a powerful story about their physical and emotional state. Here’s how
Scars or knotholes in the trunk usually indicate some type of trauma that could possibly be sexual in nature.
Fruit in the trees or leafy limbs indicate a positive
A minimal number of windows, when combined with people who have large heads, no feet and geometrically-shaped bodies, can be a sign of abuse.
Thick dark clouds and a smoking chimney commonly indicative heavy emotional tension.
Sun indicates that the mother or a close female relative is a dominant figure in their home.
When children draw a side profile of themselves instead of facing forward, it could mean an emotional conflict.
Drawing exaggerated sexual organs could indicate
Disproportionate legs and/or arms as well as missing feet tend to show up in abused children. Legs drawn pressed together could potentially indicate abuse.
A person drawn without hands is common in children, who are feeling out of control. Sometimes hidden hands indicate guilt or shame.