Guest Blogger: Nicole Topp, LPCC, ATR
This blog series will examine the many roles the arts have in healing. Today we hear from Nicole Topp, an Outpatient Counselor at Child Guidance & Family Solutions.
Using Art Therapy with Children and Teens
Children and teens go through so much in their lives and they have so many big feelings! It can be too much to take on by themselves so working with a professional to help them navigate these challenges can be helpful. It is not easy for every child to talk about how they feel or know how to put it into words so a treatment like art therapy can bridge that gap. Through the art, kids can understand their feelings, develop social skills, practice mindfulness, build confidence, and much more. It can even help break the ice when kids feel awkward and stare blankly at me, a stranger, wanting to know about their life. Art becomes the language for expressing thoughts and feelings when words may fail them. As a mental health counselor and art therapist, I see these benefits playing out in real time every day.
Every child starting counseling identifies the goals they hope to accomplish, so art therapy becomes a unique way to help them toward these goals. There may be emotions they need to understand better or an experience they need to process. It can be a more engaging way for kids to practice mindfulness, impulse control, or following directions. Showing, rather than simply telling, who they are can help them build confidence and a sense of identity. Whatever their goals might be, there is an art therapy intervention for them.
Beyond what they gain from the actual intervention, the choices the client and I make can also help them toward the goals. Creativity and choices in a safe environment are empowering! When much of a child’s life is out of their control, art is a way for them to feel in charge of something and be proud of what they accomplished. How many choices for materials can I give without them feeling overwhelmed? How can I give the instructions in a way that leaves room for interpretation and creative thinking? One of my favorite projects is creating a three-dimensional creature to represent the negative, self-doubting voice a child might have. They can be so creative assembling something with assorted materials in my office. Once they have a silly, hideous creature on the table in front of them, it is much easier to talk back to those negative thoughts.
Something important I learned from my training as an art therapist was to consider the materials used for each client and plan each session to maximize the therapeutic benefits. It’s not helpful if I use a standard intervention in the same exact way for every child I work with. Different materials can impact how emotionally connected they feel to the art, or how they are able to practice needed skills. I want the art therapy space to be a safe one, so there are some materials I might avoid with a child if it would cause unnecessary frustrations. One child who struggles with perfectionism might tolerate a project with paint or chalk pastels that is not as easily controlled (or erased!) like pencils, while another child could really struggle with this. A child with ADHD might rush through a project with markers but can practice how to slow down and take their time when using scissors, paper, and glue even if the goal of the project isn’t about impulse control.
A major benefit for kids engaging in art therapy is focusing on self-expression rather than artistic skill. Art therapy is about the process, not the product. Since I am different than their art teacher and I am not there to grade, they get to disconnect from the idea of perfection. At the end of their session if they have a piece that means something to them or helps them with their goal, then the artwork has done its job. If a child created a poster of all the positive qualities about themselves, then they go home with a tangible reminder of how cool they are even if parts of the poster aren’t perfect. Someone recreating a traumatic memory gets to express what that experience was like in a safer way than words, even if they don’t want to keep the picture.
The information I get from the process helps me tailor future sessions toward their goals, too. The process could show me something about the child’s character or strengths and how they handle emotions that come up during the process, so I can then create interventions building on those strengths and helping to develop coping skills for managing emotions. Once the projects are finished, the child can again feel empowered by becoming the expert about their artwork. A misconception about art therapists is that we interpret artwork to find some hidden meaning, but we want the client to share their own explanations of their art. I can support a child in finding themes, reflecting on insights, or digging a little deeper into what they shared, but it is harmful to think I know what goes on in their life just from their art alone. In this processing stage of an art therapy session, they get another chance to be in control of what they share, how much they share, and what they can gain from the artwork.
There are so many ways that art therapy can be beneficial for children and teens alike. When counseling can already be a new or uncomfortable experience, using art therapy can make treatment engaging, empowering, and insightful. It can propel clients toward their treatment goals in a more dynamic way. I feel privileged to be a witness to the journeys they take.
To learn more about art therapy visit American Art Therapy Association (www.arttherapy.org). To find an art therapist or learn more about art therapy initiatives and programs in Ohio, visit the Buckeye Art Therapy Association (www.buckeyearttherapy.org).
Art Therapy Credentials Board (www.atcb.org) is a resource for anyone interested in becoming an art therapist. Child Guidance and Family Solutions is a community mental health agency providing an array of mental health services for children and adolescents. If you or someone you know is in need of mental health treatment, contact our intake department (330-762-591), or Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board (www.admboard.org) for additional agency listings.
Nicole Topp is a registered art therapist and licensed professional clinical counselor. She graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 2011 studying Psychology and Art, and she completed her graduate degree at Ursuline College in 2014 for Art Therapy and Counseling. She provides outpatient counseling services at Child Guidance and Family Solutions, a community mental health agency with multiple locations across Summit County. She has worked in this position for more than 5 years, treating primarily children and teens with a variety of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and adjustment disorders. She has additional training and experience in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and facilitates a DBT group for adolescents.