Can hurting families benefit from art therapy?

All Woman

IN our last feature we started looking at how art therapy can help anxious or angry children to cope. Registered art therapist Lesli-Ann Belnavis Elliott explained that art therapy is a mental health profession that uses art and psychology to help people of all ages express difficult concerns (ie, psychological, emotional, developmental, behavioural etc) that are hard to verbalise or talk about. It is conducted by a trained person who assesses the history and background of the person being seen, establishes treatment plans and goals, and provides art therapy activities for the client. This week we continue the interesting discussion focusing on how art therapy can help hurting families.

Can families benefit from art therapy?

BE: Yes, families can benefit from art therapy. Family therapy is in essence an extension of individual therapy; it more so involves all members of the family (ie, parent, spouse, partner, child, siblings, extended and/or blended family). There is such a thing as family art therapy. At the core, therapy is about helping people work through difficult emotions and come to a resolution if possible. The added bonus with art therapy is that the approach involves less talking and is more about using art as the tool of communication. Families at the core involve different dynamics, and each family member will have different communication styles. Some families may need help with:

•Conflict, tension and communication issues amongst siblings or parents or different members and developmental transitions

•Concerns related to forms of transition (ie separation, divorce, or death/loss in the family; moving; new family member and infidelity)

•Family trauma and abuse and/or intergenerational trauma

•Addictions within the family.

Share some specific ways art therapy can benefit families with challenges.

BE: Art therapy can be beneficial in that art making helps all of the members to create and communicate on a similar level of communication. This is also helpful for family members who may be on a different developmental level and may have a different level of verbal language (for eg, a young child). Art and play are key forms of communication and development for children and so having the art therapy outlet would help with the child's communication of their world, emotions and concerns. The key element of the art is that it helps to eliminate the resistance and verbal censorship that could occur when family members try to talk about a variety of things. The art-making aspect of art therapy encourages the family members to have to work together, problem-solve and develop a sense of cooperation, sometimes causing the family to work through and break down difficult communication barriers.

Have you seen an increase in anxiety from people in general as a result of the pandemic?

BE: What is interesting is that the pandemic caused me to have to “tun my hand mek fashion” in terms of my approach to art therapy. Typically, I would see clients in person; however, parents and adult clients expressed apprehension to come into my office after the pandemic. Knowing the importance of art therapy, I offered the sessions online and people responded because they needed an outlet for themselves or support for their children. I observed an increase in calls from parents who noted that their children were either having trouble focusing during online classes, struggled with behavioural issues, or experienced some form of grief. I did note a vast increase in clients who were dealing with grief.

Regarding an increase in anxiety during the pandemic, the clients who were seen did not necessarily display anxiety concerns. However what is interesting is that with the onset of the pandemic and my transitioning to online, I wanted to gauge what were the concerns people had and what areas they needed support in with art therapy. I developed a poll last year where 45 adults ages 18 - 60 years answered. One of the questions I asked was, “What areas do you need support with?” and the results were:

•Anxiety - 23 people (56.1%)

•Stress - 22 people (53.7%)

•Depression - 21 people


•Grief - 14 people (34.1%)

•Family concerns - 11 people


Belnavis Elliott has been practising for the past 12 years and has worked with numerous groups, community-based organisations, schools, children's homes and a correctional facility, in private practice, and of course, with families.

Shelly-Ann Harris is a mother of four daughters and author of a new book, God's Woman. Catch up with her on Twitter @Harrisshellyann.




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