Mom blog: Because I Said So! Children’s Mental Health Week: art as therapy

crayons-1.jpgWho decrees what week it is in Canada?
I’m guessing there are too many cooks in the kitchen on this one. Yesterday I said this week was Children’s Mental Health Week, May 3 to 10. So I’ll point this out to you before anyone points it out to me: it is Children’s Mental Health Week 2008 in Ontario, according to CMHO (Children’s Mental Health Ontario). Over at the cross-country Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), it’s CMHA Mental Health Week 2008 from May 5 to 11. Our friends to the south at the National Federation of Families For Children’s Mental Health (FFCMH) are celebrating Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week from May 4 to 10. What does this mean? That I can only point out specific events geared to kids’ mental health in Ontario, but that information and links have significance to all caregivers of kids.

Art and kids’ mental health
Why am I starting here? Because when we were at our family therapy session yesterday (yes, my kidlets and I walk the talk), we had a sneak peek at the kids’ art exhibition that opens today. Like music, dance, play and drama, art is a creative way to express a person’s inner thoughts when words won’t suffice or can’t be found. For children, the thoughts are often too wrapped up for them to sort out, or they don’t have the language skills, or they don’t have enough trust in someone to talk their feelings out. Art is the perfect vehicle for children to express themselves and explore their emotions and thoughts.

Tools
Paper and a pen. Paper and a pencil. Crayons, markers, pencil crayons, paints, you name it. Ever since my oldest was 2, I have kept large quantities of Crayola washable crayons in the kitchen so our cupboards (almond melamine) could serve as drawing boards. My children have filled entire “books” of sticky notes with tiny drawings, sketch pads, spiral-bound notebooks, big sheets of newsprint, stretched canvases too.

Ready, set, art
Pick a time when there isn’t a rush to get anywhere. Pick a comfortable place. Put the child in proximity of the materials, and encourage them to draw or colour or paint anything they like. Resist the urge to suggest or guide.

Interpretation
Who hasn’t looked at their kids’ drawings and thought, “Why is this scribbled over?” “Why would she remember that?” “Where would he have seen this?” “Why is this so important to her?” “Why is this so dark?” or, the flipside, “These colours are so happy,” “Look at all those smiley faces,” “I look so skinny here[!?!].” I always remind myself: “Self, you are no art therapist. Don’t do this at home. Go to a professional.”

Tips for amateur practitioners of art therapy
1) don’t pick apart each piece of art
2) look for repetition of images: too much of something may indicate a preoccupation
3) if your child is old enough to draw facial expressions, check those out
4) use the art as a way to open up discussion with your child. “Is there anything you want to tell me about your picture?” is light years better than “Why is your sun red?”
5) some kids won’t want or need to talk, so respect that. It’s their story, and they’ll open up when they want to.

Sometimes a vulture is a vulture
A scary black vulture could mean fear, death, bullying, or it could be a bird from a book on birds in library class last week. Don’t read too much into the art, let it serve as a way to open the lines of communication.

Self-esteem booster
Ask if it’s okay first, then put those pictures up. Every time one of the kids would see their art on my office door, or by my desk, or, even better, at one of my co-workers’ desks (the kids would take orders for “custom drawings”), their self-esteem grew. At home, their drawings line the foyer, the hall, kitchen, livingroom and dining area. We all love it. They aren’t framed and precious, but plastered up for all to see, and rotating as new pieces come home.

Art shows for Children’s Mental Health Week
From Toronto to Thunder Bay, you’ll find art shows, and tons of events to celebrate mental health for kids. And if you can’t make it out, just spend some time “arting” with your kids or grandkids, and maybe get talking.

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