Creative Self-Expression for Health, Coping, and Resilience

Ask your child to write, paint, dance, sing, and put on shows.

Posted Sep 25, 2019

Michael McCauslin/Flickr
Source: Michael McCauslin/Flickr

Every child yearns to be listened to, heard, and understood. At the same time, however, a child doesn’t have the cognitive or psychological tools they need to make sense of their own painful or confusing experiences; they don’t have the insight or perspective or language they need to understand these experiences themselves, much less communicate that to others.

By giving your child opportunities for creative self-expression—whether writing, painting, drama, role-playing, music, puppetry, or dance—you support them in expressing themselves openly and without judgement. Once they have completed their creative activity, listen carefully to anything they might want to say about it. Don’t push or pry; just sit and listen. Look for what your child might be trying to communicate. Ask a few questions, and listen for the answers. Don’t interpret what your child has produced, but if they express any emotions, respond with appropriate compassion and warmth, and help them find the possibility in any problems they've uncovered.

For example, after school one day, five-year old Sheri put on a drama for her mother, using two dolls and a teddy bear. The dolls and the bear were very good friends until one of the dolls was mean to the bear, and suggested that the two dolls should go off and play together, without the bear.

At the end of the play, Sheri was holding her bear tight, and looking sad.

“How did that make Bear feel?” Sheri’s mother asked. “When his friends went off and played without him.”

“Very, very sad,” Sheri said, wiping away a tear.

“Has that ever happened to you?”

“No! Of course not! I have lots of friends.”

“Has it ever happened to one of your friends?”

Sheri looked defiant. Then she nodded sadly.

“Was your friend sad, like the bear?”

Another small nod.

“Then what happened?”

“Recess was over and we all went in.”

“Is there anything you can do about this?”

“No! It already happened!”

“There’s usually a way to repair things after we’ve had a chance to think.”

“There isn’t.”

“Hmmm.”

“Maybe I can tell Joey I’m really, really sorry.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“He is my friend, and I shouldn’t have listened to Annika.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Sheri’s mother said, as she gave her daughter a hug.

This is a small example of one of those everyday experiences that a child needs help processing. By participating in the creative self-expression activity, Sheri’s mother helped Sheri understand an important dimension of social intelligence, and do some problem-solving about repairing a wound she’d helped to make, and felt remorseful about.

Children who experience serious trauma benefit even more from creative self-expression; in fact, their psychological and physical well-being depend on it. In “Imagination and Expressive Arts as Antidotes to Adversity,” Cathy Malchiodi writes about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Viennese artist who was interned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Using art supplies she had brought with her into the camp, Dicker-Brandeis taught hundreds of children to look below the surface of a person or an object, and become absorbed in the feeling of that person or object. The consensus of the survivors Malchiodi interviewed was that Dicker-Brandeis was redirecting them away from the horrors that surrounded them, to the beauty and possibilities of the world, which proved critical to their psychological resilience once they’d left the camp.

Although traditional art therapy has focused on discharging negative emotions through the creative process, recent research shows that focusing on the negative may not be the best use of your child’s imaginative powers. It can be more healing to do what Dicker-Brandeis and Sheri’s mother did, and ask your child to focus on their positive emotions, what makes them feel confident, happy, or hopeful.

Engaging in creative self-expression is a wellness practice, as beneficial to your child as spending time in nature, good nutrition, sleep, and physical exercise. Creative self-expression reduces stress and increases a sense of well-being and other positive emotions. It helps to heal wounds and bridge differences, supporting your child’s health, well-being, resilience, and coping abilities. The more challenging your child’s circumstances, the more important it is to provide them with opportunities for positively-focused creative self-expression.

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