As an art therapist, one of my specialties is child psychotherapy. When asked to explain what child psychotherapy is, people give me weird looks
when I say, “it’s child’s play”. They seem to have a similar response
when I’m describing art psychotherapy:
“It’s just art. It’s just kids messing around with toys. How can that be therapy?”
Playing is indeed what it’s all about. But maybe it’s a bit too simplistic to refer to it as “child’s play”. To the child, working out feelings, thoughts and experiences
is anything but simple.
One of the first child psychotherapists, Melanie Klein, compared play to a “royal road to the unconscious”. Today, we think of art-making and creativity not as distractions or forms of entertainment, but as important parts of human development. Imaginative play and creative construction are natural integration tools to children, helping them expand their thinking and make sense of their experiences.
In the past, children were thought to have a limited understanding of traumatic events. Today we know that a child’s emotional range is much more complex – comparable to an adult. We also know that the brain is still developing until the child is in his mid-20’s. This means that, although kids can have plenty of intense emotions regarding personal experiences, they do not have an adult’s verbal capacity to make sense of these experiences. Immature coping strategies could mean negative, sometimes destructive, ways of dealing with stressful events.
Artmaking and creative play in the psychotherapist’s studio act as external organizers to the child. This allows him to process emotions and memories in a safe, contained environment. Child-led interactions mean that the child takes the lead in deciding the materials to use, the concepts to create and the subjects to talk about. This self direction is crucial to seeing internal processing in action. It also means that the child can explore and expand upon thoughts and feelings on his own terms, at his own pace. Although the situations created may not always be realistic, the feelings and the thoughts behind those feelings are usually very real to the child. The art psychotherapist is specifically trained to help the child “decode” this creative output, acting as a witness and an unconditionally accepting guide as the child makes sense of his creation.
We all know that talking about our experiences helps us put things into perspective. But to a child, finding the right words can be difficult. Child psychotherapy is designed to help children express in ways other than verbal while making connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This can help them develop healthier coping strategies and more productive methods of interaction with others. It can also help them develop increased resilience in the face of future hardships.