As we pass the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many young people are struggling to make sense of their emotions and experiences over the past year. Just as they did at the start of the pandemic, children and youth need help from the trusted adults in their lives to process uncomfortable feelings, come to terms with their experiences, and cultivate hope for a future worth striving for. As we stand with our young people in the face of an ever evolving "new normal," art, in all its diverse forms, offers an invaluable tool for building resilience in children and youth.
Making art can boost young peoples' moods, help them express their thoughts and feelings, and build confidence. Research tells us that art can enhance well-being even outside of a therapeutic context, especially when it is paired with mindfulness, making it an ideal way to support child and youth mental health at home and school.
Benefits of art-making for children and youth include:
- improved mood
- elevated self-concept and awareness
- enhanced emotion regulation
- increased self-expression
As we move into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, art can provide a window into young people's experiences. Dr. Nikki Martyn, Program Head of Early Childhood Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber, has launched the Child Art research study for just this reason. According to Dr. Martyn,
Children express themselves through art and play, this includes their feelings and thoughts of their world. Through the collection of children’s art work during the pandemic we hope to see children’s experiences and perspectives of this unique time in history and ideas, thoughts and feelings about the future. It is the hope that through understanding the child’s perspective through their own voice that we will be able to understand how to support and respond to children’s needs and understand implications of the future generations of this time in history.
To find out more about the Child Art study and how to participate, click here.
Parents, teachers, and caregivers can support young people to explore their feelings through art in healthy and nurturing ways by following a few simple tips:
- Focus on your relationship. Children and youth need to feel supported and safe in order to relax and let their creativity guide them. Help create a sense of security by telling them that your eyes and ears are open if they would like to show or tell you anything about their art. Assure them that anything they share with you, in pictures or words, will stay just between the two of you. You might also want to share information about the Kids Help Phone, if you're in Canada, or another kids crisis support line in your region.
Ask questions. Offering young people prompts can jump start their creative process and help them engage with their emotions and experiences. Dr. Nikki Martyn suggests a number of questions you can ask to help children and youth tune into their bodies and minds in the present or envision a desirable future.
Let young people lead. Children and youth need to know that they are at the wheel of their own art experience. Make it clear that the focus is on process over perfection, and that you have no expectations for their art to look a certain way. Let them know that you're okay with them taking the reins, even if it means that their art takes off in an unexpected direction. Doing so builds a sense of agency and empowerment in a time when young people need it most.
5 Art Ideas to Boost Mood and Self-Expression for Children and Youth
1. Encourage young people to paint how music makes them feel. Play songs without lyrics to help them connect with the music and themselves on a feeling, rather than thinking, level. This activity can also be done with other materials such as pastels, crayons, markers, or clay.
2. Make hand prints and write one feeling, strength, or hope on each of the fingertips. Young people can use washable paint to make a hand print or trace their hand on construction paper with pencil or pen. Make it a relationship-building activity by swapping handprints and writing the strengths you see in that young person on their handprint.
3. Create a feelings inventory. Invite them to draw, sculpt, collage, decorate, or paint a container for their feelings (eg. a picture of a house, a small clay bowl) and then fill it with images or objects that represent how they feel. For example, mixed materials can be used to decorate a shoebox to fill with found or crafted objects. Body tracing on poster paper is another creative way to make a feelings "container" for this activity.
4. Invite young people to draw themelves with their eyes closed. Encourage them draw how they feel on the inside, rather than how they think they look. Variations include drawing themeselves as they would like to feel, which may boost mood further by focusing on what makes them feel good. This activity works well with paint or even lifesized with sidewalk chalk!
5. Encourage young people to create a collage of their heart or brain. Invite them to fill it with images and words representing their thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams, anxieties, and fears. Ask them what they would like to share with you (or others) about their artwork.
BONUS: Watch a paint thunderstorm together. No time to get your hands dirty? No problem! Watch this award-winning short film, Paint Showers, for an immersive stop-motion paint thunderstorm experience.
Dr. Martyn was a featured panelist at our Heart-Mind Life Webinar, Resilience & Growth: Prioritizing Our Kids' Mental Health. Register to access the (by donation) recording here!
In a study of 83 children aged 6-12, researchers found that drawing for five minutes improved children's mood. Drawing to distract from negative feelings, rather than to express them, led to a significantly greater boost in mood.
- What does the world look or feel like today?
- What does your family, friendship or school look or feel like?
- What would you want for the world or your family or your friends or teachers?
- How would you draw the pandemic?
- What does the pandemic feel like?
feeling happier, more positive, less frustrated, and less anxious
In a study of 130 children aged 6-12, researchers found that emotion regulation through drawing primarily takes place through distraction from negative emotions, which can be achieved through drawing imaginary or real scenes. Researchers hypothesized this could be because drawing to distract enhances both enjoyment and absorption.
In a study of 33 children aged 5-12, researchers found that children shared significantly more information about their mental health challenges when asked to draw and talk about them simultaneously, as opposed to only talking about them.
In a study of 47 children with a mean age of 10 years who participated in a 12-week arts based mindfulness group, perceived benefits included improved emotion regulation, mood, coping/social skills, confidence and self-esteem, empathy, and ability to pay attention and focus.
Another study of thirty 7-11 year-olds found that participating in a weekly art therapy group for 10 weeks significantly improved self-esteem and reduced anger in aggressive children.
Of course, if you are concerned that they or someone else might be at risk of harm, follow established safety and confidentiality protocols where you are.
- What would you like to change after the pandemic?
- What would the world look like when you are an adult?
- What would your family, friends, or school look or feel like in the future?
- What would you look or feel like in the future?
Registered psychotherapist Krista Reinhardt-Ruprecht explains how art can help young people cope with and express their emotions:
“When we’re stuck in feeling states,” she says, “we are in the right hemisphere, low in the brain, and it’s hard to climb out of that. When we use our hands to make art, we trigger our left hemisphere to come back online. Meanwhile, we are making an internal emotion into an external piece of art, which can help us by looking at it as separate from who we are.”