Express Yourself: How to Help Kids Share Their Emotions

Harbor and The Cullen Center at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital came together to present a project about art therapy this Mental Health Awareness Week in which children were asked to draw what they think emotions look like. Browse some of their images in the photo gallery below. You and your child can participate in this same activity by downloading a coloring page here.

Emotion Art Project Framed Art2Sometimes the key to unlocking a child’s world begins with a single creative expression, according to Michelle M. Kepford, MA, LSW, Art Specialist/Clinical Therapist for Harbor.

“’Expressive Arts’ is based on the idea that when we provide the right conditions for those in need, we open doors to growth,” says Kepford.

Expressive arts uses various arts — movement, drawing, painting, sculpting, music, storytelling, sound, drama, and more in a supportive environment to facilitate healing. Whether it’s addressing emotions after a parents’ divorce or helping to understand peer pressure, art can help children look inside themselves.

“Expressive art refers to using the emotional, intuitive aspects of ourselves in various media. Using expressive arts helps people transform thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences into concrete, tangible, helpful, and hopeful expressions. The process is therapeutic,” she says.

Kepford currently runs a day program at Robinson and Westfield Elementary Schools geared specifically toward helping youth discover ways to communicate ideas and feelings that may be hard or impossible to put into words, such as memories or abuse. The group also tackles issues like body image and self-esteem, managing emotions and understanding grief and loss.

“The day treatment art program at Harbor encourages others to see that there is no right or wrong in the arts, and therefore focuses on what is right with people rather than what is wrong with them,” says Kepford.

Using Art to Cope with a Traumatic Event
Just a few miles away at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital, Aaron Cromly, Clinical Counselor at The Cullen Center, employs some of the very same techniques. The Cullen Center’s mission is to help children and families who have gone through traumatic experiences heal, and when words don’t come easily to children, art is a way to help open up a line of communication.

Emotion Art Project Framed Art5“If they’re internalizing and holding everything in and they don’t know how to express themselves, the pressure of the emotion gets stuck and instead comes out in behaviors,” says Cromly.

One effective technique is asking the child to pick a color for the emotion they’re feeling and color in a heart that corresponds to how much of that emotion they’re feeling.

“Using expressive techniques helps us get to the standard questions of how they’re doing or finding out where they’re at today.”

Cromly says open invitation questions about the art, such as asking what a drawing means to the child, can lead to a deeper conversation.

When working with teens, he might ask them about songs they’re listening to and what it means to them, which words they are drawn to and which instruments they like the most.

“Once they start expressing verbally, you’re helping them to define that art and make meaning, but you’re also helping them express themselves. It becomes, ‘This is what it means and what I’m feeling.’ They’re expressing part of who they are to that person.”

Drawing can be much more than deciphering a child’s thoughts and feelings. Picking up a marker or colored pencil can be a distractive technique too, which helps them better connect with a therapist. With toys and art supplies in abundance at the center, children can interact with whatever they choose.

“Some of them just start doodling as they start talking, which is usually helpful,” Cromly explains. “They might just grab a toy, and it’s helping them disconnect enough so they can talk about a traumatic feeling or event. They don’t have to look someone in the eye, which is a great amount of pressure when you’re a child. It might not seem like they’re paying attention, but they’re listening to what you have to say and they’re engaged with you, but just not in the way you’d think. There are ways to help those thoughts come out.”

Click here to view even more great student art pieces from The Cullen Center and Harbor on Facebook.

Expressive arts activities can and should occur outside of the clinical setting as well. Encourage your child to express their feelings at home and download our coloring page here. Parents can participate, too!