By Stephanie Dean-Moore

It is my pleasure to introduce Stephanie Dean-Moore. I have been fortunate to supervise Stephanie over the last three years in her achievement of RCT for the NSCCT. Throughout our process, I have come to learn the special ways in which Stephanie approaches her counselling work and has now opened her own practice in Nova Scotia in the Fall River area, Tidalstone Counselling Services

Stephanie Dean-Moore

MEd, Counselling, CCC, RCT-C

MAEd., BA(H), BEd., BFA, , VAC (Art Specialist)

Stephanie Dean-Moore is a counsellor, visual artist and educator. She has worked with clients and students of all ages, from pre-schoolers to adults in their nineties. She has extensive experience working in the Arts, and as well as traditional talk therapy, she uses arts methods therapeutically in her counselling work.

As a visual artist, Stephanie has worked in a variety of media, including textiles, book arts and jewellery. Her work has been exhibited throughout Canada as well as internationally and has appeared in several publications. Much of her work is therapeutically-based, using her art making to explore personal issues such as grief, loss and fear.

We all struggle at times to express our emotions. We may feel vulnerable and fear opening up to someone. We may feel that it is unsafe do so. We may worry that we will hurt the listener with the truth and that they might reject us. Sometimes we are so confused about what is happening in our lives that we can’t identify how we feel, let alone tell others. Children, like adults, can struggle to understand what is ‘going on inside’, resulting in confusion and upset. Letting these intense feelings out can be challenging for everyone.

Periods of uncertainty can be overwhelming. The emotional turmoil we can feel at such times is like being in a tornado, where everything feels threatening; we can be left feeling powerless and frightened, confused and emotionally volatile. In order to process the experiences we are having and the emotions that we are feeling, it is necessary to step out of the tornado to gain perspective: That house we thought might fall on us is really only a Fisher Price model, and we can actually manage if it tumbles; the tornado that engulfs us is actually only slightly taller than we are, and isn’t that big of a deal for us to escape from. Without perspective however, we lack the ability to objectively assess and understand what is going on and why we are feeling the way we do. Stepping out of the tornado is necessary, but it can be challenging; we need to have a safe, comforting place to stand while we examine and explore what is really going on.

When helping your child deal with events that involve change, uncertainty and that are potentially upsetting for them, it is important to create a safe place for them to stand if we want them to explore and open up about how they are feeling. We often turn to what we adults do well- we ask them to talk. Talking can have great benefits, especially when the listener is there to ‘support’, not ‘solve’. Some children however, struggle to express themselves through talk, especially if they are young or they don’t know how they are feeling, let alone how to communicate those feelings.

Using art-making strategies to open up feelings and dialogue can be a familiar and safe place for children to land; while making art they can step outside of the tornado to consider what is going on. Art-making in itself has therapeutic properties that encourage healthy self-exploration and expression; it is non-threatening and can allow deeper feelings to emerge. It can be done alone, collaboratively and/or in a group where everyone can remain an individual; where everyone can choose how and what they want to create. Making art with your child can strengthen bonds, open dialogue and give you a safe place to explore how they are feeling and what the sources of those emotions are. Most importantly, it is easy, fun and there are ‘no mistakes’, key to supporting and nurturing the strengths in a child who may feel overwhelmed.

The following are some arts-based activities that you can use to open up emotional dialogue with your child. They can be adapted to suit every age and ability level. Feel free to explore and change them so that they become special sharing opportunities for your family.

Sculpting Feelings Activity

Start off by creating the materials for your sculptures by making homemade playdough together. This is an invaluable opportunity to let your child lead, so that you are empowering them and nurturing self-confidence and pride. Even the youngest toddler can dump ingredients into a bowl or add food colouring to the dough. Ideally, the child is doing at least 50% of the work, so that they feel a sense of ownership for their materials. Depending on the age of the child, the making may look different- Maybe they are getting out the ingredients and supplies, and/or measuring everything out. Maybe they turn on the water and turn it off, or perhaps mixing everything together in the pot, or kneading the final product. If you are working with more than one child, divide the ingredients and allow them each to make their own playdough to use. If it is just the two of you, give them the option to share the playdough with you, or ask them if they would like you to make your own batch.

Every time you give your child a choice you teach them that they have the power and ability to choose for themselves. One of the goals here is empowering your child and helping them develop the skills to trust in themselves and self-validate.

There are MANY recipes out there for non-toxic homemade playdough. Make sure to use food grade ingredients in case curious minds decide to nibble. Consider making Sculpting Feelings a regular activity and use each session as an opportunity to explore different recipes. As you work with each dough, discuss with your child how that particular dough looks, feels, smells… tastes! Show them that it is OK for you to have different opinions, but that both are valid and that you support them as individuals. This is a great opportunity to help children be present in their bodies and start expressing how things affect them. You can extend the activity by keeping a Sculpting Feelings book that includes the date, recipe used, the child’s descriptions of the dough and how it ‘felt’.

I suggest that you start using this activity in your home by playing with your child. The idea is that you each have your own playdough and create your own art. A few things to consider whenever making art with a child, which also echo talking with them about their feelings-

  • There is no ‘right and wrong’; everything is valuable as it helps us to learn about ourselves and grow
  • No critics allowed! That includes criticizing our own work. Remember: Children look to us as models, and when we put ourselves down, we normalize that behaviour.
  • There is no ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’. All art is necessary to express a full range of ideas and emotions. There is certainly more pleasing and more challenging art, and we don’t always want to hang with the challenging work. Without all of it however, we will lack perspective and appreciate the diversity and richness of what we have.
  • Not all artmaking is fun. That’s OK. That doesn’t mean that it will never be fun again- we just need to understand that it was one day and one experience.
  • Most people need to ‘warm up’ before they get into serious artmaking; take some time at the beginning to play around with the materials without any goals.
  • Allow the person making the art to explain it to you. Don’t presume to ‘know’ what they are trying to make or express. Allowing someone to talk about their art to you allows them an even deeper reflection on what they have made and the inspiration behind it.
  • When talking about artworks, you are doing just that- you are talking about the work. Resist talking about the person who made it. Say things like, “The sculpture is really exciting. I like the shape at the bottom and the way it makes me think of fat raindrops”, not, “You are such a great artist. Everything you make is awesome.” Talking about the specific work allows you a distance to explore it from, in a non-personal, non-threatening way. One artwork does not define everything about an artist, and the goal is to explore all kinds of artmaking, including ugly art, angry art and risk-taking art (which often doesn’t look great, but is an invaluable making experience). We don’t want people to limit themselves to making- or being- only what others see as valuable and approve of.
  • Process over product. It is liberating to make something and then fold it into something new. It echoes the previous point of life being transient and changeable. If you really love something, of course you can keep it, just try to make the ‘making’ more important part of the big picture, not the artworks. And remember- you can always document a piece with a photograph. You may even what to start doing that to create a personal gallery- this will echo the idea that we are not defined by one piece, one feeling, one moment, or one event in our lives. This will encourage reflection, especially if you frequently visit your child’s gallery and talk about the work.

You should introduce this activity when things are going well- Starting with a “You seem frustrated. Go make some meaningful art that expresses that frustration”-type of approach is far from ideal. Instead, have fun making the playdough and then use your first session or two to simply make. After some free-form play, you may want to explore the following ideas:

  • Encourage observation and making things that you see around you. This will help the child to develop the skills necessary to consider and process the world around them. These skills will be essentially for doing the same with how their bodies are feeling and what is going on inside their heads and hearts. Expressing an emotion means observing and processing what is happening inside and developing these skills in a non-threatening way with the world around us is a great place to start. This will also teach your child to ‘step out of the tornado’ during challenging times.
  • Think about creating things that are non-representational; in other words, things we can’t see or touch, such as how music feels or what happiness looks like. Our instinct may be to create icons of intangibles, such as a music note or a happy face. That’s fine to start but try to slowly move to expressing deeper meaning through your sculptures. You may find in fact, that your child has a much easier time doing this than you do!
  • Work towards creating ‘feeling sculptures’. Explore how sadness would look, or excitement, the whole gamut of emotions. Make a game of it and ask your child to suggest emptions for the two of you to sculpt. Encourage conversation of when you have each felt that emotion, using specific examples from each of your lives. It is important that you share and model how people all go through challenging and easy emotional periods, and that identifying and moving beyond those periods and feelings does happen.

Note: While it is very important to share your feelings and experiences with your child, remember that they are not there for you to confide in. Keeping perspective on who your audience is is vital, so that you don’t influence your child’s experiences with your own. The child should be able to focus on their own feelings, rather than become overwhelmed by yours.

  • As you explore feelings based on life experiences, you can encourage dialogue about how their feelings are complex, how we can have multiple feelings at the same time, and how their feelings may have changed as time passed and/or events changed. For example- If exploring the emotion sadness, you can talk about how sad you were when your dog died, and that that feelings was overwhelming at the time. At the same time, it was possible to feel happy when thinking about how much you loved your dog. Breaking down and addressing individual feelings can help a child gain insight into why it is so easy to be confused and not understand how we feel; we are complicated creatures that have many emotions available to us, often at the same time!
  • Use Feelings Sculptures to open up dialogue about the past, present and future. As a tool, it can support your child as they process challenging events, learn to sit with emotions in the moment, and to talk about feelings that they have around the future. It is also a tool to allow them to identify and communicate to others as well as to themselves.

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