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.