Artist Akshayaa Selvaraj believes that art therapy for children under stress or trauma is a very essential step in choosing to heal. “Children learn, believe and internalise their experiences through how an elder behaves, talks and reacts with them. When stress and trauma become their ‘normal’, they disconnect from their body and revert to coping mechanisms which would suppress them to feel shameful of themselves. Art is a tangible and somatic experience that helps them to explore and unlearn their traumatic patterns and transform them into new beliefs,” says Akshayaa.
The process of working with colours greatly helps children in rebuilding a new paradigm and beliefs as it helps in regulating their nervous system too. “It is very important for children to understand and feel it’s normal and safe to have varied emotions like a ‘spectrum of rainbow’ rather than understanding it in binary terms of happy and sad (black and white) which leads to often feeling shameful and wrong. Art therapy acts as a mirror for them to transition from a wounded self and connect back to their joyful, creative and unique self,” she adds.
While interning in the children’s wing of the Cancer Institute, psychologist and mindset coach Nikita Vyas observed how art therapy is helping children. “Children are very expressive and also vulnerable. They may not open up about what they’re going through directly. Art therapy, as a medium, helps them feel safe enough to open up and express what they feel. It may not be as direct but very metaphorical. This illustrative form of communication allows them to revisit their suppressed feelings, emotions, and thoughts. It especially helps children who may lack verbal or social capabilities of expressing how they feel or want to say,” notices Nikita.
Using art as a medium of communication also helps build a sense of trust and connection with the therapist. “Children need assurance that they are safe. And more importantly that they’re free. When they are engaged in art, they feel relaxed and also verbally start to communicate. Everything they create holds significance - the kind of drawing, colours and the gender they often describe. The challenge for the therapist could be to distinguish reality from what they perceive under duress,” the psychologist points out.
Art therapy is a very delicate and gentle medium and Nikita says that it needs to be administered with a lot of patience. “The effectiveness of this kind of therapy also depends on the age group the child is in. Children need and desire to be heard and understood. When something traumatic happens in a family, such as death, accident or abuse, children are often neglected. As they cannot find professional solutions or help, they depend on adults. Encourage children to open up and express themselves,” stresses Nikita.
Prominent artist Parvathi Nayar tells us that she has seen how children and adults alike can use art - through expressive brushstrokes, simple images or colour - to express ideas and emotions that they simply cannot do through words. “It is sometimes very hard to verbalise thoughts, stresses and emotions, especially, for children. Drawing/colouring out these more latent emotions can be less threatening and more spontaneous. I think it can be very soothing and cathartic too,” says Parvathi.