Art therapy lets children open up
By Noh Hyun-gi
In many suspense movies or TV shows, we often see a child character offering critical information (usually ugly truths) for a case through art. Be it an absent father in a drawing of a family or a rough sketch of crime scene, the simple images disclose troubled young minds.
Psychoanalysis of drawings and paintings such as these are only a part of art therapy. “People usually think of identifying children’s problems through artwork when they talk about art therapy,” said Yeo Im-gyeong, an art therapist at Cham-Bit Center for Children with Special Needs at Kwangwoon University, on Wednesday. “But that is only the beginning; art therapy gets children to communicate, gain self-confidence and even overcome their disabilities.”
Yeo may prescribe the widely used Draw-A-Person test developed by American psychologist Florence Laura Goodenough in the 1920s, which can hint at a child’s condition. A small figure may represent low self-esteem. Failure to include basic anatomical features such as hands or odd images showing the intestines may imply schizophrenic tendencies.
Based on psychoanalysis, the art therapist moves on to fun exercises tailored to the children’s abilities. “For seriously timid kids, I start with tasks that do not have a specific end product because that can further intimidate them.” Dying salt grains with paint and simply playing with it like sand can get the client engaged. Other art therapy methods include making a present for oneself, drawing a comic strip, painting a happy memory and splashing paint on the wall — virtually anything that has some kind of creative and fun aspect. Once the child gets comfortable, the session can proceed to more concrete activities like making a clay sculpture or building a paper cup castle.
Getting one’s hands coverd in paint and wrestling with clay are the best ways to get chilren to open up. “Art therapy is great for kids because it is simply a lot more fun compared to other approaches like speech therapy or cognition exercises,” Yeo exaplined.
“It’s amazing to see children become confident after multiple sessions.” It is Yeo’s joy to see her clients gently refuse her help because they can do it themselves. The goal is not only to read what is going on in the children’s minds but also bond with them and get them to talk.
Art therapy is effective for children especially those with developmental disorders or speech disorders because it offers an easier way to communicate. The new channel of expression greatly benefits the relationship with their parents.
“I work with a child who has no developmental issues, but his verbal skills were below average. His mother writes for living, so she was struggling to understand her own child and kept berating him.”
The mother’s attitude changed dramatically once Yeo started showing the child’s work — the mother started complimenting and encouraging her son and saw that she was judging him from a one-sided standard. Yeo believes art therapy for children should always include counseling with the caregiver. “I sometimes act as a messenger between the child and his parents or even a mediator between the mother and the father.”
Kim Eun-joo, program coordinator at Cham-Bit Center, added: “When I inform the parents about their daughter’s or son’s problem, the initial reaction is quite contrasting.” While mothers tend to ask the counselor what she should do now for the child, many fathers avoid facing the issue. “They are quick to say that I am wrong or refute my analysis saying ‘but she did this at home or she doesn’t draw like this at school.’”
While art therapy can alleviate certain symptoms, it definitely cannot cure clinical conditions or delay the progression. “It is an art therapist’s responsibility to understand his own limitations and refer doctors when appropriate,” Yeo said. Her long-term client, a teenager with schizophrenia, is on medication. Art sessions have helped the girl talk about her struggles with peers and even became one of her coping mechanisms. Children with tic disorder, which may be a result of high anxiety level, can relax through crafting and painting.
Art therapy has been gaining recognition as an option for medical assistance. Kim explained that when Cham-Bit started offering art therapy back in 2009, about one child signed up for a session per day. Now, all sessions are booked and there is a waiting list.
Fortunately, the government is supportive of parents with children who need help. In Seoul, parents can apply for financial aid from Ministry of Health and Welfare, Seoul Metropolitan Government, and Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. On the basis of teachers’ and doctors’ evaluation, the agencies give out vouchers, up to 100,000 to 200,000 won in value that can be redeemed at designated therapy centers.
Standardized certification process for art therapists is absent which gives way to unaccredited private practices. There is a national certificate for adolescent therapist only. Many obtain art therapist degrees in graduate schools — Yeo studied visual arts at Hongik University and trained at Seoul Women’s University as an art therapist. To fill in the void of institutional education, a number of foundations, not all credited, offer training.