Sunday, October 1, 2017

Channelizing aggression in children through art


A 5 year old's expression of her internal trauma
Aggression in children could be a symptom of underlying issues that find external expression in inappropriate verbal and/or physical behaviour. The common course of treatment for anger management in children is behaviour modification and in extreme cases medication. These approaches have their merits and can help in averting disastrous consequences for the child and his/her family. However, focusing on behavioural techniques in isolation may inadvertently conceal the psycho-emotional problems that are at the root of the behaviours and may be a call for help from the child, rather than a deliberate attempt to cause harm.

Children lack the ability for metacognition or the capacity to think about their thoughts. Simply put, they may have no clue as to why they act out, transgress limits, push buttons and indulge in inappropriate behaviors beyond what is considered typical. Amongst the many reasons they may be doing so, attachment issues, familial problems, stress related to school and peers, learning differences and developmental challenges may be implicated. Thus, it seems rather one sided to expect external compliance from a child who may be suffering emotionally, without addressing the internal aspect of the matter.

I find art therapy to be most efficacious when it comes to addressing psycho-emotional problems in children as it has the capacity to tap into the hidden content of a child’s psyche that may not be accessible through words. Art making can by pass defence mechanisms that prevent access to deep-seated conflicts.

Very importantly, art therapists work through metaphors in the child’s artwork thus, if some trauma or difficult emotional content surfaces through art making, it can be processed in a safe and non-confrontational way. Art therapy is a safe therapeutic modality in that it avoids re-traumatization of the individual from exposure to difficult memories.

Art therapists are also trained to direct negative emotions into creative acts through prudent use of art material. Clay may be pounded or kneaded, scratched and poked in order to express anger or frustration just as paint may be splashed or paper torn and crushed to channelize aggressive affect into appropriate expression.

Art making, whether in the form of seemingly random scribbles and doodles or skillful images and sculptures is an expression of the unconscious. Thus, to partake of art therapy absolutely no skill in art making is necessary. In fact I have come across children who do not show any inclination to draw or paint yet can be tempted to engage in acts of creation that lead to inner expression.

A child cannot convey with words what they are not aware of; and some children may not have the ability to speak. You will be amazed to find what can be achieved through the simplest forms of creativity and relational art making with an art therapist.


Time and time again I am asked if art therapy and art class are one and the same? Once again, I will repeat that ONLY a Master’s level art therapist can conduct art therapy. Most art therapists are registered with regional boards of art therapy associations and have gone through hundreds if not thousands of hours of clinical practice.