Art Therapy: Conversations Through Color

Image via Sukjai Photo / Adobe Stock

There are any number of reasons parents may consider therapy for their child.They may want strategies to cope with anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges. Perhaps there are issues around relationships or self-image. Or their child may have a disability, like an Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD, that often comes with a host of concerns. 

Whatever the situation, know that effective therapeutic options are available, and they aren’t limited to traditional psychotherapy, often called talk therapy. 

One alternative is art therapy, where children work with a qualified mental health professional to express themselves through a creative, hands-on process. While an obvious choice for children and teens with language limitations, art therapy can be an excellent modality for nearly anyone.  

Treatment beyond words 

Art is a universal language, and everyone is creative in their own way. Capable and credentialed art therapists know how to help even reluctant children or those with mobility or other restrictions find an inspiring spark. In fact, many children with ASDs or ADHD are visual learners with both strong affinity and potential for artistic expression. 

Clinicians can utilize and build on these visual strengths. To start, they offer a wide variety of mediums, from paints, crayons and markers to modeling wire, food coloring and natural materials like leaves and twigs. Sessions could include clay, dominoes, LEGO pieces or something else entirely to match a client’s interests and abilities. 

Art therapists know that the creative process requires a broad range of cognitive skills. Art therapy can help increase a child’s attention, concentration and problem-solving, which is especially valuable for those with disabilities. Furthermore, working individually with an art therapist or in a group with peers allows children of all abilities to practice social skills.  

Working together in a supportive environment 

Children gravitate towards art and often do not think of it as therapy, according to Sangeeta Prasad, multilingual art therapist at Circle Art Studio, in Fairfax, Virginia. As the therapeutic relationship strengthens between clients and clinicians, the children create and explore art, make connections and increase their self-understanding in ways that can be

Photo courtesy of Race Point Publishing

amazing. Prasad adds that the art therapy process invites both curiosity and mindfulness and can welcome and normalize even the most challenging feelings. 

What to expect during a session 

Art therapy is versatile, so therapists work in many different settings, including educational, medical, rehabilitation, private practice and mental health programs. Sessions may be one-to-one, or for groups, couples or families.A standard weekly session runs 45 to 60 minutes but could be longer in some cases. 

During art therapy sessions, clients create works of art—often enthusiastically—but the art itself isn’t the objective, nor is improving artistic techniques. Rather, art therapists help children and teens of all abilities with skill-building and therapeutic goals, such as increasing self-expression, improving attention to tasks and problem-solving, working through difficult emotions and problematic situations and more. 

Jennifer Baldwin, art therapist at NoVa Grief Support and Counseling, in Falls Church, Virginia, starts individual sessions with a greeting and warm-up exercise. “This time may be spent talking or engaging in a brief art activity that promotes transition to the therapy space,” she explains. Baldwin then moves on to a check-in and brief assessment of her client with words, toys or art supplies. 

As the session progresses, art making may be more structured, like filling in a pre-drawn body outline with lines, shapes and colors that reflect how the child is feeling, or less structured—for example, asking clients to draw whatever is on their minds. Baldwin sometimes closes therapy with a grounding ritual, such as writing an unwanted thought or feeling on dissolving paper and dropping it into a water fountain. 

Lauren Schlenger, art therapist for Tracy’s Kids at Children’s National Hospital, works with clients in the hospital’s art therapy studio or at bedside. Schlenger’s team invites children to select their own art materials and then create something of their own choosing, providing a valuable opportunity for self-direction in a setting where patients often have little say in other aspects of their treatment.

During the session, Schlenger may create alongside her patient to support their connection or quietly observe. According to Schlenger, “I’m there to offer support through the process, including if frustration arises or problem solving is helpful—though I aim to offer as much autonomy as possible.”

Local talent, local training 

The field of art therapy is growing as clients and their families discover its value and universities create or expand art therapy programs to train practitioners. While some higher education institutions offer undergraduate programs in art therapy, clinicians must have a master’s-level or higher degree. 

Sharon Strouse | Provided Photo

Many DMV area art therapists were trained at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., or Drexel University in Philadelphia. Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, Virginia, also offers a master’s program in Art Therapy and Counseling. 

Want to Know More?

The American Art Therapy Association (arttherapy.org) as well as regional organizations, such as the Maryland Art Therapy Association (marylandarttherapy.org), Potomac Art Therapy Association (potomacarttherapy.org) and Virginia Art Therapy Association (vaarttherapy.org), offer helpful resources including contact information for art therapists. 

Circle Art Studio – Fairfax, VA | circleartstudio.com

NoVa Grief Support and Counseling – Falls Church, VA | novagriefsupport.com

Tracy’s Kids Art Therapy Program at Children’s National Hospital – D.C.

childrensnational.org/get-care/departments/center-for-cancer-and-blood-disorders/tracys-kids-art-therapy-program

What Are the Creative Art Therapies?

Creative arts therapy is a licensed mental health field that uses creative processes to help clients achieve goals and improve their emotional, social, cognitive and physical functioning. Art therapy is an excellent example. Related professions include music, drama and dance/movement therapy.

According to the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations (NCCATA), more than 15,000 Creative Arts Therapists are practicing in the United States and around the world. National Creative Arts Therapy Week (CATS Week) is celebrated annually during the third week in March in both the United States and Canada. However, it’s always a good time to learn more about these valuable interventions and potential career paths:

adta.org – American Dance Therapy Association

musictherapy.org – American Music Therapy Association

nadta.org – North American Drama Therapy Association

nccata.org – National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association

 

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