What is art therapy and why it is effective in working with children during the war

Author of the article: Anna Argirova

“We give the child the opportunity to live a story that he/she creates on his/her own. And we will be nearby and support him/her on this path,” Antonina Sorochynska says, a psychologist at the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation.

She explained how art therapy differs from a regular drawing lesson, how this method works and why it is the safest way for a child to process his/her inner experiences.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is therapy by means of arts. This is a method of psychotherapy that allows you to use creativity to correct certain issues that concern a person. Art therapy is suitable not only for children but also for adults. The advantage of this method in working with children is that this method is quite environmentally friendly.

Can you only draw during art therapy?

No, you can dance, create fairy tales, sculpt from plasticine, dough or work with sand. Any creative activity that helps to demonstrate and express emotions. The psychologist does not ask children what is happening to them or what they are feeling, but instead creates conditions in which the child can choose a creative tool for self-healing.

How does art therapy differ from a drawing lesson?

The result is important for a drawing lesson. The child performs a specific task given to him/her by the teacher. On the contrary, the process itself is important in art therapy. Through playing and creativity, the child shows what worries him/her inside, choosing the type of paint and colors, the plot he/she wants to portray, and so on.

Why is art therapy more effective in working with children as compared with conversation?

Children express themselves through creativity (or play). In this way, they find their own internal resources to cope with the problem that worries them. If we can talk to adults about some moments, it’s quite different with children. We communicate with them non-verbally, often on a symbolic level. And this helps not to harm them.

If it is a group process, we have certain rituals for starting and ending the session. For example, before we start, we share our mood. But the main part of the session is when the child creates. He/she intuitively chooses the tool that suits him/her. The right decision for a psychologist is to trust the child, his/her unconsciousness.

Can art therapy harm a child with the wrong approach?

In general, any method of therapy can be harmful, even art therapy. Therefore, there are certain rules in the work. There are also mandatory rules in the group process.

For example, do not disturb each other. The psychologist helps to create an atmosphere where there is silence, where everyone is comfortable, so as not to distract anyone from the creative process. Groups should also be small – up to 8 people of the same age.

These frameworks allow not to harm, but to create conditions in which the child feels comfortable and relaxed. Finally, in the first, second or third session, the child will begin to show his/her creative potential.

Is art therapy a tool used in a group, or can it also be individual?

Formats can be different: individual, group, family.

Is the child’s work evaluated?

No. We focus on the process. It is the process that heals, not the result. At the beginning of each session, we tell the children that they can draw as they wish. There is no right or wrong result. And if they suddenly don’t like something in the process, they can always put the sheet aside and start all over again.

What is necessary for art therapy?

Space. It is desirable that it is the same, as well as the same team of volunteers, psychologists or educators who work with children. It is appropriate to have various creative tools: gouache paints, pencils, felt-tip pens, natural materials, pebbles, shells, a lot of paper etc.

What can be said during art therapy, and what can not?

We – psychologists – are always present, but we try to interfere less in the process. At the same time, we pay close attention to what children do, we are interested in the creation process. Through questions, we also help the child to tell more about what he/she drew. And it may turn out that the child drew a superhero who, for example, has superpowers and defends Ukraine. And then the psychologist realizes that the inner strength of the child, which he/she portrayed in this character, helps her cope with fear or anxiety.

We give the child the opportunity to live through a story that he/she creates on his/her own. And we will be there and support him/her in this.

Does art therapy help at once or is it about long-term results?

The more classes, the longer the effect. But after a few lessons, parents notice that children become calmer, more relaxed, less anxious, sleep better.

Are there any age restrictions for art therapy?

We work with children of all ages. For example, with children under 2 years old, we paint with finger paints.

Can we state that art therapy is a useful tool for working with children during the war?

Definitely so. It is difficult now to name a more effective tool than art therapy. Children come with different symptoms: fear, anxiety, aggression and so on. And art therapy helps the child to heal on his/her own, because the child creates the story that he/she needs to live through. That is why it is so important for adults not to interfere in this process, because we can destroy the balance. Meanwhile, non-interference and support help the child to live through some internal conflict situation.

Photos posted with children’s permission

Mostly the child is scared, the children’s sense of home is unstable, their reality and sense of security is destroyed. Some children move elsewhere, some lose their homes and do not know when they will return. The parents may not understand how their children feel. Because parents are also under stress.

Children often paint a house, they create houses or huts, create houses of pebbles or sand. And this is therapeutic for them as well. (In this unstable time, the child finds a space where he/she becomes the master of the situation, does exactly what he/she wants. In this way the child manages to catch the feeling of internal stability, and the effect of external instability becomes weaker.)

The child creates an inner home in which he/she knows that no matter what happens, he/she will always be fine.