Expressive Arts Therapy

Expressive Arts Therapy


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 Before:  “Worry” On Jenna’s Back         After:  Jenna says “Phhft” to Worry


Drawn in by the adventure of overcoming an externalized problem, many young people open up and engage actively in verbal conversation. But, as we all well know, children prefer to express themselves in more ways than just sitting and talking! Most kids jump at the chance to communicate in different ways; even those who are quite comfortable with verbal conversation usually appreciate being offered various forms of expression, such as painting or puppets. If they are not provided with alternative means of expression, the unique “voices” of certain young persons may be excluded from a family therapy conversation.

It is worth considering play and expressive arts therapy with:

  • children who are not very verbal, including those who experience verbal shyness, speak another language as their first, have language-based difficulties,    or are just too young to talk;
  • children for whom art, sandtray, or dance are preferred means of expression, considering that they may be primarily visual or kinesthetic processors;
  • those who have experienced a constriction of verbal expression at certain times, for example, due to threats made during abuse, and who may be uncomfortable with “talk therapy.”
  • with families where differences exist between therapist and child in terms of family style or cultural expression and where parents have expectations about appropriate ways for children to communicate.

We may notice, for instance, that a child is expected by parents to communicate with any adult in authority (including the therapist) with displays of deference, e.g., limited eye contact, or polite abbreviated answers. The therapist may then inquire about such manners and how best to observe them, or about the possibilities for altering them in therapy without being disrespectful. We might, for example, compliment the child on her polite behavior, and ask her parents if it might it be a good idea for their child to communicate with drawings or a journal.

Children caught up in the emotional experience of the problem may have great difficulty expressing themselves in words, yet they may be communicating nonverbally, broadcasting their experience with facial expressions, posture, and movements. To what extent should we keep persevering in the attempt to verbally engage young people who are immersed in such an experience?

Information about problems may be lodged at a somatic level even when it is barely within conscious awareness. Approaches are then needed to bring such experience into focus. Elsewhere we have referred to these as “somatic conversations” (Freeman & Lobovits, 1993, p. 198). In the above situations, nonverbal encounters offer alternative means of communication while demonstrating acceptance of the child.

For some time learning and communicating unfold for babies in the social context without words. As Mills and Crowley (1986, p. 92) put it, “Although the baby has no language capacities during this period of time, a vast array of qualities, feelings, and needs are communicated.” As young children become verbal, more and more sensory input is organized by the brain into narrative form.

Implications for our work arise when we consider the complexities of perceiving and making sense of the world. If we limit our conception of a person’s life to what is “storied” in words, ignoring the functional biological whole of mind and body, we may slip into the dualism of Descartian philosophy. The map of verbal description does not fully represent the territory of lived experience, including the richness of visual symbolic processes, feelings, emotions, and sensations. Expressive arts therapies directly engage auditory, visual and kinesthetic senses as well as emotions. When we pay attention to nonverbal cues and facilitate expression through a variety of arts that evoke different senses, new dimensions of experience arise that are aesthetically rewarding as well as effective in our conversations with children.

Children and whole families can be invited to develop a narrative conversation using the expressive arts with media such as drawing or painting, cartoons, poetry or journal writing, sculpture, guided fantasy, charts or maps, sandtray, dramatic play with puppets, dress-ups and role-play and drama therapy, movement, mime, or mask-making.

One does not have to be an artist or be specially trained to use the expressive arts in combination with narrative therapy. There are straightforward ways to broaden expression. For example, many children can be invited to show problem or counter-problem ideas in graphic form in a drawing or cartoon. It is not necessary to be an expert in expressive arts or play therapy, since the child is already an expert at play and, given a simple invitation, will go a long way; the adult merely has to be willing to tag along and take up the meanings that emerge.

The field of expressive arts therapy has some things in common with narrative therapy. While the theories behind these approaches may differ, the “expression” of problems in art form is inherently akin to the practice of externalization. The very process of drawing, sculpting, or dramatizing the relationship with a problem naturally evokes a visceral sense of the problem as located for reflection outside of the self. The act of expression, in this sense, is often reported as beneficial in itself–it can be a relief for children to literally “express” the externalized problem in a symbolic yet physically experienced way. This allows them to “see” the problem and ponder it more easily. Just as they do when left alone to play, children often like to work and rework stories in oblique forms, such as puppet theater, rather than talking about things directly.

In some expressive arts therapies, the client creates and dialogues with figuratively expressed problems conceptualized theoretically as “parts” of the self. For example, “the critic” within a person is personified, drawn, and brought into a more agreeable relationship with the person (McMurray, 1988). We have found that similar benefits result from the artistic expression of a problem in expressive arts therapy as from the practice of externalization.

Rather than being employed for objective diagnostic and interpretive purposes, in both expressive arts therapy and narrative therapy clients are invited to make meaning of their own expressions (Weller, 1993). The therapist takes a stance of curiosity and facilitates the expansion of preferred meanings for the client, rather than offering an expert opinion on her artistic productions.

Narrative therapists are interested in the “performance of new meanings” (Bruner, 1986; White & Epston, 1990), which leads to the co-authoring of alternative stories. This idea takes on new dimensions in the context of expressive arts therapy. The “performance” of a new meaning or story that includes other realms of expression helps solidify the new experience. To literally see in a picture a different vision adds a sensory dimension to the performance of meaning. For example, a child may draw herself as the problem would see her and then as she would prefer to be seen.

Expression in art may be experienced as inherently rewarding and healing. With expressive arts therapy the process of creation is regarded as being of value instead of the main focus being on the technical viruosity or artistic merit of the product. When expressive arts are combined with co-authoring narratives with children, we prefer to invite a child into alternative forms of expression, try to respectfully inquire into the nuances her meanings, and allow our own imagination to overlap with the child’s rather than using stories to interpret or evaluate the product.

Multimodal or intermodal expressive therapies invite a person to move flexibly among media, following her creative instincts and interests (Knill, Barba, & Fuchs, 1995; Robbins, 1994; Rogers, 1993). Satisfaction is afforded as different senses are employed and a deepening effect takes place. This-model can be loosely applied in the context of narrative therapy. For example, a sandtray is reflected on by writing a poem or short story. Its meaning could be further developed in movement, which then leads to a painting or sculpture.

Children revel in performing new stories about their relationship with the problem via drama or puppet play. Imagine a special project for the performance of meaning: a videotaped “documentary” of a child or family’s preferred story, which includes interviews, testimonials, poems, and meaningful images in drawings or sandtrays.

Expressive Arts Therapy