Unlock your child's inner emotions



Parents rave about the benefits of art therapy

Children at The Creative Art Therapy Studio in Kingston can express themselves through many different mediums. You can learn a lot about a child's mental health through their art. 

When Candice Sosler was facing a divorce, she knew what she needed to do to support her children through the process of family changes.

"I knew therapy would be important for my children," says Sosler, who lives in Dutchess County and works as a school counselor.

Her children were just four and six years old at the time. "I specifically chose art therapy because of their ages," she says. It was important to find a format that worked for children who didn't have the verbal skills for other approaches.

Play and creative arts were natural interests. "Right from the beginning, it was easy to see how the kids were feeling and clear from what they were creating that there was angst," she says.  

READ MORE: Don't let divorce affect your child's grades

Sosler began regular sessions for her children with Lucy Barbera, an art therapist in Kingston and director of The Creative Art Therapy Studio. It's been three years since Sosler's children began therapy and they still go every other week.

"It's a space where they're respected, comfortable, heard and cared about, I think that's what all kids need," Sosler says. "Life is tough for kids today."

Feel the healing through a variety of mediums
"When you walk into the studio you can feel the healing," says Barbera who also trains counselors and others in related fields on how to infuse art therapy into their work with children and families. It's a tool that can be used in tandem with other approaches, and includes traditional visual arts as well as music, photography, poetry and other mediums.

For example, there's a classic art therapy exercise called house-tree-person where the client is instructed to draw a house, a tree and a person.   

Barbera gave an example of how a therapist might interpret the results. A child might draw a large house and tree and a tiny person and this might provide insight or begin an exploration into why the child feels insignificant. The therapist will look at the whole, the gestalt, of the drawing and over time, Barbera says, the child could reveal a loss or a trauma that parents were unaware that continues to affect their child.

"Perhaps the child's best friend moved away months ago and the sadness still lingers," she says.  

The sand tray is another therapeutic tool. This activity lets kids create their own world view by choosing from thousands of items, arranging them in the tray and creating a story.

"Why out of all those items did the child pick an egg and put it in the center?" Barbera says of how an interpretation might unfold. "Why are items placed in a circular or chaotic configuration, what kind of inner conflicts are being revealed?"

Sosler describes how over time, she saw a transition for her children as they moved through the feelings and experiences involved in their family situation. It's a place where they feel safe and connect with their feelings. There is joy in that process.

With expressive art therapy, children have an opportunity to use a variety of mediums: drawing, painting masks and clay, for example.  

As to what medium is used, emotions direct the type of materials a therapist provides. For instance, a person with anger or frustration might use clay. An out-of-control person might work with pencil and line drawing to help bring those emotions under control. A withdrawn person might benefit from a medium that is more fluid and open.

Address misconceptions
Alix Sugarman, an art therapist in Red Hook, says there are many misconceptions about art therapy - it's not just "finger painting your feelings."

It's a profound, transformative experience and a way to get at what is underneath to unlock those feelings and traumas, she says, adding that art therapists have extensive, specific training. "Working with an art therapist, you will get to the core issue. It's an effective and powerful process, a way to tap into and resolve problems which sometimes may dwell at an unconscious level."

She also emphasizes the value of the therapeutic environment. It's a safe place to explore that Sugarman believes every child could benefit from.

READ MORE: Plan for the future with your artistic teen

"Art therapy is an intervention within a therapy which produces a lot of change and development," Sugarman says, "You may be storing the information nonverbally and art is extremely effective at getting to the nonverbal part of trauma."

Work to find the right fit
Justin Wixon, an art therapist with a practice in Rhinebeck, says his current caseload is primarily 12-16-year-old boys. Being a male therapist helps him build trust and open up conversation. "I feel that expressive arts therapy is a great modality for anyone who is open to both verbal and nonverbal forms of self-expression. With that being said, individuals who tend to think and feel in a more abstract and creative way seem to connect with the
process more quickly."

Wixon recalls a very frustrated and anxious teenager he asked to "draw her week." Within moments of her drawing you could see that she was physically less stressed and able to articulate her feelings through pictures and colors.

But Wixon cautions, it's important for the approach to be a good fit for the client. "I always explain to parents that there is a wide range of potential
outcomes, but expressive arts therapies can function as a means to express feelings that are difficult to explain with language."

Finding the right fit took one Ulster family an entire year. Julie Jansen says, "My whole family was in crisis after my 8-year-old daughter began to have anxiety and panic reactions." This started after the child experienced an unexpected hospitalization while away at camp. Her self-soothing behaviors clearly showed a child in distress.

Jansen and her husband tried various therapists and approaches for their child without seeing real progress. Then, they connected with a therapist who felt they could find a better fit and encouraged them to try expressive art therapy with Barbera.

Almost immediately, the Jansens saw a huge change as their child expressed what was inside and got to the core issue. Much of this work took place in the sand tray where their daughter created hospital scenes as she explored the separation anxiety that had taken control, her mother says.

Jansen says, "Lucy truly saved our family." A couple of years in, her daughter continues to attend sessions, although now less frequently. Jansen encourages other families to consider art therapy.

Olivia L. Lawrence is an editor for a news organization. She likes to spend her free time outside gardening or otherwise enjoying nature.