Using Art in the Playroom to reduce Anxiety

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Anxiety in children is quite common. Mental Health Ireland reports that one in ten children in Ireland suffer from a mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Anxiety in children can often result in behaviours such as difficulty concentrating in class, difficulty sleeping or perhaps complaining of head aches or upset tummies (in the absence of any obvious illness). I find when parents come in to see me about their children’s anxiety, they are often at a loss as to what may have caused the anxiety. Together, we begin to piece together the picture, looking at what recent events may have caused distress – right back to the time of pregnancy and what happened in the child’s first days and weeks. In one case, I began a course of play therapy with a girl who was experiencing high levels of anxiety and as a result finding it very difficult to drift off to sleep at night.

The first few sessions of play therapy were completely non-directive, in that she chose exactly what she wanted to do/play with. She always gravitated towards the art table. In her art, she was imaginative and free, she had no sense of being “good” at art, she just freely created. I sensed that this was the medium she was most comfortable with and decided to do a Body Map Exercise. This exercise is a great way to help children to understand the boundary of their own bodies, to understand which emotions they feel in their body, where they feel them and what these sensations feel like.

She began to colour in (on the life size map of her body we made together) where she felt feelings. We worked on nice feelings (happy, excited etc) as well as difficult feelings (worry, anger, sadness). She showed me on the body map that she felt most of the difficult feelings in her tummy and always in her head. We were able to explore this as worrying and ‘over thinking’. As she did this, she began to develop a deeper understanding of her feelings. It also became clear that she viewed feelings were difficult as ‘wrong’, like anger. By working together, I was able to help her to understand that these feelings are not ‘wrong’, but certainly difficult. We explored ways that she could ‘let them out’. Most importantly, she began to realise that these ‘big’ feelings are manageable.

Within a few weeks her mum began to report that her sleep had vastly improved. In fact, she began to find the transition from awake to asleep so relaxed, that she had little difficulty in eventually being able to drift off to sleep without any issue at all.

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