No one likes to see their little one stressed. Having a child who suffers from anxiety means you’ve undoubtedly explored many options, including everything from physical activity to talk therapy. But have you considered adding art therapy prompts to list of your go-to soothing and grounding methods?
“Art therapy is a wonderful therapeutic tool for kids specifically because it’s the easiest way they have to express themselves when they haven’t learned the vocabulary or communication skills to accurately express their complex emotions,” Manuel J. Cantu, MA, LPC-Associate, tells SheKnows. “It is helpful because it is a creative outlet that can map out what a child is going through and can in turn help us adults know what questions we need to ask or follow up with.”
The reason why art therapy works so well for kids, adds Jennifer Ann Jensen, a.k.a. Oefy, an art therapist with over twenty years of experience, is because of “the interactive and sensory nature of the process. Utilize fingers, and hands, and coordinate with eyes to use the art materials,” Jensen says. “It allows the younger person some autonomy and independence throughout the process while exploring their interests: for example, choosing the colors, materials, and direction of the project.”
Cantu notes that it’s important to know whether your kids struggle with expressive arts and are highly self-critical before you try the above. “You might want a simpler prompt that doesn’t require too much of them and won’t make them shut down,” he says. Prompts should ideally make a child’s beliefs, thoughts, fears, or values clear as they depict what’s going on in their life, such as family or school. One thing you shouldn’t do, according to Cantu, is to force a child to draw or talk about something they don’t feel ready to share, or assume that a certain picture or other artistic depiction has a specific meaning before the child has a chance to explain.
If you need some inspiration to get started and get the creative part of your brain going, Cantu and Jensen share some anxiety-reducing art therapy prompts to try out with your kids.
Perhaps you have a kiddo who freezes when they have to perform or think on the spot. Instead, Cantu suggests offering them a pre-made coloring sheet that could be anything from animals or fun shapes and characters to color in. “This allows them a little more freedom and isn’t too demanding; that way, the time they spend choosing their colors and deciding where they go can be soothing and relaxing, as opposed to building an entire picture. Offer praise for their color choices (even if they made the sky purple!) and their perseverance.”
Gratitude Symbol List
“When feeling anxious and full of fear and nerves, it can be beneficial to access positivity,” Jensen says. “Creating a visual collection of symbols, expressed in words and images, brings an awareness of positive thoughts and emotions.”
A gratitude symbol list helps to develop an appreciation for aspects of their life, through compiling a symbols list. On a blank page, let the child represent the things they appreciate and feel thankful for. Add thoughts and feelings using specific words, colors, or symbols. To assist kids with depicting this imagery, use stickers or collage from magazines.
Paint Your Perfect Day
Ask your child to create just that – their perfect day. “This invites the child to shift from the immediacy of anxiety and what they’re feeling in their body, and encourages them to reflect and distract their brain,” Cantu says. “It helps them access positive thoughts and even sensory perceptions (the sun is shining, I am running on grass, I hear my friends, etc). It is a perfect way as a parent to learn a little more about your kiddo and what they treasure.”
Another fun way to help children cope with anxiety is using sensory materials such as play dough or sand. “Much like squeezing a stress ball, molding and kneading clay can help children self-soothe,” Cantu explains. “It also allows them to create characters, real or imagined, places, or things, that help tell their story.”
When feeling scared or anxious about something, Jensen says it could be helpful to create a visual representation, which is why she suggests creating a clay creature to symbolize something scary or a problem you can destroy.
“Molding, rolling, and squeezing the clay is tacitly therapeutic. Externalizing this fear with a figure, and acting out to fight or conquer the problem.”
Your child can create a creature (monster, goblin, dragon, etc.) with any type of clay. It doesn’t have to be advanced, but make a shape that somehow represents what is frightening. Use embellishments such as wiggly eyes, feathers, pipe cleaners to give your critter character. Allow your child to act out a scenario in which the scary monster is destroyed or doesn’t win the battle.
“Painted rocks are a multi-sensory therapeutic experience. They can soothe anxious moments,” Jensen explains. “There are several benefits to having a transitional object, whether you create, hold, give, or receive one.” Additionally, a smooth solid rock represents stability. The purpose of the activity is to create a symbol of strength to achieve and overcome challenges.
To get started, paint a flat smooth rock with acrylic paint. You can use washi tape or paint markers to make designs, patterns, and/or symbols. Let it dry for a few hours, before sealing with a clear coat of mod podge.
The Anxiety Monster
Cantu notes that he would only use this prompt if he was noticing that the child is starting to believe they’re an “anxious person” and not just a person dealing with anxiety. “Externalizing and separating the anxiety from who they are as a person can be very healing,” he explains. “This might look like asking them how anxiety feels to them, does it have a color? Does it have a shape or a name? I would encourage parents to be extra aware of how their kiddo is responding to this.”
Color Circles or Mandalas
“Simple and to the point: draw a circle and fill it up! I like to have children give their emotions colors (maybe happy is yellow, and sad is blue) and have them fill up their circle with however much of what they’re feeling,” Cantu says. “Then you can explore that together.”
As always, he adds, any activity with your children should involve non-judgmental comments and avoid meaning-making. “You’re not there to interpret or tell them what they’re feeling. If you want to narrate the process, focus on identifying their choices (‘You made that dog brown’ or ‘You’re smiling while you’re coloring’). The last thing you want to do is critique their choices or abilities in a situation like this.”
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