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Why Use the Arts in Counseling?

By Natasha Broman

For many counselors and therapists, the arts remain an untapped resource in their practice. They may feel they do not have the materials or space, or perhaps their training did not include the use of the arts. However, even in a small room and with limited resources, the arts offer extremely powerful facilitation techniques for all types of problems that children might be facing.
For older, very confident, or self-referred children, talking through a problem openly may come with relative ease. Other students, however, will experience inquiries about the issue at hand, albeit from a caring adult, as exposing and emotionally difficult. Typically, issues such as bereavement, divorce, and family discord are extremely hard for children to talk about. However, play and creativity are children’s natural language and speaking through play and the arts can seem much less threatening than direct conversation.
Giving students the opportunity to create visual images and stories and then talk about them can provide insight for both student and counselor. With any image a child creates, there is capacity for expanding the story behind the image, and learning more about the child and his or her life.
More often than not, children will create stories that contain metaphors for their experience, even if they are not referring to their own lives directly. This is still therapeutic, and provides a safe distance and hiding place for the child from which he or she can emerge at his/her own pace. Working with metaphor, children begin to process and understand their feelings with the help of a caring adult.
Malcolm, aged 9, experiences his father as emotionally detached, critical, and very strict. With the counselor’s encouragement to explore the small toys in the room, he uses figures in a sand tray to tell a story about a little puppy who keeps trying play with a big dog but the big dog stamps on him and insults him. Within the veiled safety of a metaphor, Malcolm feels able to illustrate the harsh treatment he experiences emotionally with his father.
The counselor might ask the puppy directly what he is feeling, and empathize with the puppy and the terrible situation he finds himself in. The empathy, although kept within the metaphor and directed at the figure in the sand, is still felt by the child—who will experience great relief at having his own story heard, understood, and responded to.
If instead the counselor had asked, “Why is it that you and your dad are not getting along?”, Malcolm may very well have shrugged his shoulders and avoided eye contact. Through entering enactment in the story, Malcolm is able to make a connection with the counselor and speak powerfully about his feelings while illustrating a fuller picture of his reality.
There is also an opportunity to hear from the big dog, and gain insight into what Malcolm thinks his father feels about him. The counselor might ask the puppy if there is anything he would like to say to the big dog, providing the child with the chance to say in metaphor what he feels he cannot say in reality to his father. This could also serve as a rehearsal for future reference.
Stories and metaphors can be created through drawing, painting, drama, games, dance, poetry, and sand play. Clay can also be an extremely effective material to suit many needs. In addition to creating people, objects, and stories with clay, children and teenagers struggling with aggression can punch and pound a ball of clay. Many children with perceptual and motor problems need this kind of kinesthetic experience to get closer to their feelings.
The counselor may choose to encourage the child to add words to this physical experience. Kate, 12, punches the clay, which leads her to get in touch with deep feelings. She starts saying, angrily, “Back off! Get off!” Once she stops punching and becomes regulated again, she opens up and talks about her anger at the children who bully her and what she wants to say to them. Insecure children with low self-esteem can also benefit greatly from working with clay, as it affords them a sense of control with no real possibility of making a “mistake.”
Therapeutic use of the arts empowers children and young people, enabling them to share their experiences in ways that feel safe and providing extremely rich and varied contexts in which to do so. With even a few helpful resources, a child’s experience of counseling can be greatly enhanced through access to the arts.
Ms. Broman is in her fourth and final year of training for a Masters in Integrative Child Psychotherapy at the Institute of Arts in Therapy and Education in London.

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