How art therapy can help anxious, angry children

All Woman

This week we explore how art therapy can help anxious or angry children to cope. We connect with Lesli-Ann Belnavis Elliott, a registered art therapist who has been practising in Jamaica for the past 12 years. She has worked with numerous groups, community-based organisations, schools, children's homes and a correctional facility, in private practice, and, of course, with families. Her experience has seen her working with children, adolescents and adults dealing with autism spectrum disorder, Down's syndrome, intellectual disabilities, emotional and behavioural disorders, grief, trauma, physical & developmental disabilities including cerebral palsy, stress, and a range of psychological diagnoses including bipolar disorder. With the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, she has transitioned the majority of her services online (telehealth) but still see some clients in person.

What is art therapy?

Belnavis Elliott: 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 art therapy activities for the client. People who engage in art therapy are not expected to be skilled in art making. The art materials used range from paints, drawing materials (markers, crayons, etc), sculptural materials (clay, play dough) and photography. Art therapy is mainly about the process and product. The process involves the act of art making and how the therapeutic qualities of the art materials used help the individual to identify, explore, express and reflect on the different emotions they are experiencing. The product is a tangible image or object the individual makes in the session that can be used as a coping tool.

How can art therapy help troubled children to overcome anxiety and/or anger problems?

BE: Art therapy generally can be used with anyone; however, the approach would change depending on what the individual is experiencing. Art therapy being used with a child experiencing anxiety would be different from a child experiencing anger problems. Anxiety may be displayed differently in each child and so one would have to identify how the child behaves when they experience anxiety as well as assess if they understand what is happening to them when they feel anxious. Additionally, there are different types of anxiety disorders — generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

It must be noted that each child's response to art therapy is not always the same and so there is not a general or cookie cutter approach to how it can be used. However, my approach to art therapy is that I would help the child to identify what their reactions and thoughts are when they feel anxious, introduce and educate the child using a psycho-educational approach to help them identify what anxiety is and how they may display their anxious behaviour, creatively explore the emotions they experience and identify, and have them create coping and supportive strategies. Sometimes depending on the nature of the case or how severe the issue may be for the child, I may have to work with a team of other mental health professionals (eg a psychologist, psychiatrist, teacher, an aid, mental health counsellor, etc) as well as their family.

When it comes to helping a child address anger problems, I always identify that anger is a natural emotion that gets a bad rap sometimes. It's not about the emotion itself, but more so about how the child behaves when they feel angry. Their anger may be warranted; however, how they may display it may not always be appropriate. It is important to understand that a child's anger may be stemming from feelings of insecurity, disrespect, difficulty with understanding and completing educational tasks, and issues with peer relations (bullying). It could be a result of a breakdown in family dynamics (eg separation, abuse, neglect, inconsistency with parenting styles) or the child may be predisposed to an emotional/behavioural disorder. My art therapy approach would be to help the child use the art activities to explore the things that make them angry, identify their actions and responses when angry, and introduce relaxation and coping strategies. For children who may not have the verbal language to discuss their anger, art therapy acts as their voice and helps them to express their anger in the art and art materials used.

Share some specific breakthroughs you have seen among children who have experienced art therapy with you.

BE: During the pandemic, a teenage client was referred to me because one of their parental figures had died. Initially, this was a case of grief. In the beginning the client was sceptical about art therapy and had negative preconceived notions about “counsellors” and wasn't sure what to expect. However, within the first few sessions, the client was able to create her own goals and identified what areas she wanted support with in the sessions. As with therapy, other concerns will come to the surface and as such it was revealed that she needed support with self-esteem, depression and social anxiety in addition to the grief she was exploring. We had to transition the sessions to online and as a result the client used a digital app to create her images instead of physically drawing and painting her images. The client started using the app to create a digital art book as a form of coping per my recommendation. It got to a point where the client began using the digital art book on her own in between the sessions she had with me (ie, as a coping tool). The images she created showed how her coping mechanisms had developed and that her depression had reduced. She created concerns and difficulties with her social anxiety and was able to problem-solve her concerns through the art making. She still struggled with aspects of her grief but anytime it felt difficult she used the digital art book as a coping strategy. Her sense of self-worth and self-esteem had increased after about four to five months. The client's parent reported to me that she noticed improvements in the client and saw the benefits of the art therapy process. The parent said, “Ah my child is back to her old self and I see a change (positive) even in our communication. She is happier and talking to me more now. Thank you”.

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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