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Could the Expressive Arts Therapies Help Your Child?

It's not easy being a kid! Especially if you're struggling with issues like separation, anxiety, peer pressure, eating problems or school related problems. And sometimes children can't verbalize their problems. Which is where expressive arts therapy can be helpful...

In the presence of a therapist the act of "doing" rather than "talking" can allow for a comfortable passage towards healing. Expressive arts, symbols, images and sandplay provide the metaphorical equivalent of feelings and offer children the opportunity for safe expression of difficult feelings and experience.

Nothing can be more unsettling, frustrating or painful for parents than seeing their child struggle with a family problem that s/he can not express or resolve. Children relate to themselves and their world in different ways; auditory(verbal), kinetic (movement) or visual. For the auditory child, for example, the linear form of language "makes sense" and s/he processes all that s/he observes and feels through words.

Example: Mother, " You know that Daddy loves you." Child"' But he doesn't tell me."

This father may in fact be kinetic and communicating to the child with movement (hugs) rather than words.

For the auditory child traditional verbal therapy may help him identify and work through his concerns. However, the drawback may be that the child becomes trapped in his words, hearing only the internal voice of negative and critical responses.

The expressive therapies can introduce the child to another means of accessing his unexpressed concerns and therefore possible solutions. The expressive therapist works with each child to find which medium s/he more readily responds to such as drawing, clay, sandplay, storytelling, drama or fantasy enactment. The medium of sandplay was chosen by the therapist for a child struggling with shyness.

The pain of shyness cannot be articulated by verbalization. It is a lonely journey for a child who though encouraged to "speak up" does not have the confidence of peers. S/he sees them respond voluntarily to questions in the classroom while hoping to remain invisible. She sees them raising their hands eagerly, sees them socializing with their friends and doesn't have a clue as how to become part of this world. It is a lonely isolated retreat that is hard to understand by outgoing parents and peers who have no inhibitions about interacting and exchanging even simple conversations, The very act of attending a birthday party and participating in activities is a frightening experience. To avoid these experiences often excuses and illness appear. Unless honored and attended to, it binds a child into an isolated and lonely life. Through the expressive arts such as art, dance, music and drama, a reentry to a more expressive self is possible.

Socially shy and constantly absent from class, a school counselor referred seven year old Tommy for expressive arts therapy. After a series of exercises it was determined that he could best be helped through therapeutic sandplay. A box of sand, like a mound of mashed potatoes, is an instant sculpture, to be molded into mountains, islands, tunnels, rivers and lakes. Filled with miniature toys, animals, doll families, cars, planes, houses, castles and objects of nature that the child has selected, the sandplay tray becomes a safe place for the child to explore his conflicts non-verbally, while the art therapist provides a nurturing non-judgmental environment where growth can occur.

Tommy chose to create a story that only involved animals. He selected the turtle to represent himself, as in this case, it projected a protective place that he could carry with him at all times and retreat to when necessary. Eventually, through sand play, he was encouraged to contact other animals and cross bridges where he was no longer isolating himself. By experimenting with an emotion through sandplay and trusting how it works, he eventually took a risk and brought this new security into the real world.

After a sand world has been created, the child often experiences the sense of self mastery, so vital in fostering self-esteem. Distanced from the intensity of emotions, frightening experiences, uncomfortable situations and risk taking can all be acted out in the sandplay world where the child feels safe. The arts therapist encourages the child to talk about their sand world, as shy children often have poor communication skills. Once a timid child becomes comfortable with his full range of emotions he may then risk joining in a social situation.

Often, over the course of time, a symbol or theme will emerge which represents a special relevance to the child. It can be a flower, a house, a tree, a dog or a super-hero. The symbol will reoccur and reflect the condition of the child's inner world.

An example of a child's recurring symbol follows:

Ellen is a quiet, withdrawn seven year old, fragile and quite small for her age. Her parent's recent divorce exacerbated her shyness. Her world had become even more isolated and lonely; she became dependent on her mother to do all of her talking. When given a free choice in art therapy to draw anything that she liked she drew a fragile house, suspended in space without any grounding and with a dark cloud overhead. The picture was completely devoid of any nurturing objects or figures; a feeling of loneliness pervaded.

Over the period of her therapy, she continued to use the same symbol of a house, a metaphor of her family, but the house began to take on other elements. A figure appeared in the window, steps to the front door were quite architecturally structured, and flowers appeared in front of the house. By "drawing out" her feelings she began to realize a sense of herself, a confidence she had now gained and could communicate. She became more verbal, and spoke up for herself and not through her mother. Her house had become grounded and colorful, surrounded by butterflies and flowers. The situation at home has not changed, but the child has.

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