Art Therapy for Mamamag

Mum: “He used to be so gentle and well behaved. Now he is caught up with the wrong crowd. The boys in his Grade 5 year are violent. They lie, misbehave and bully each other in the playground. I am not used to his distancing himself and I just can’t seem to connect to him. He won’t open up to me.”

During the art therapy sessions that followed, the Grade 5 boy built weapons out of cardboard; slingshots, bows and arrows, guns and knives. He built “safe” spaces: cages, elevator shafts, protected rooms, guarded homes and towers. He needed to create a world separate to home where he was feeling consistently under threat from his brother who had a developmental disability. His brother was prone to violent outbursts and without wanting to bring negative attention to his already challenged sibling, he kept his fears to himself. He didn’t want to burden his parents. Eventually his behaviour was too violent and harmful to ignore.

Fast forward a few months after art therapy, the Grade 5 student became calmer, more affectionate, and opened up to his family once again. He was able to verbalise his worries and learn strategies to feel safer. School noticed. Six months later he was elected Primary School Captain!

I still get blank faces when I say art therapy. And it’s not surprising. Even the art therapists and psychologists can’t agree on what it’s all about. Yet it is important to understand what it involves, as it really is a beautiful process of healing and discovery.

We can all create, and creating is very healing. In fact, creating can really be transformative. We grow as people when we become more aware, understand ourselves better and become more insightful. And to achieve these states we need to dig a little deep, often into our emotional states such as pain, anger, fear and joy. It is through this creative process that we can transform our emotions.  Our feelings and emotions are an energy source. Whether it’s movement, art, or music, our imagery and metaphors lead us into the subconscious, and shines a light on our blind spots. By enlightening the once dark parts of ourselves we learn new information and awareness that can inform our future behaviour. As we create, we affect how we feel and relate to the outer world. We learn to relate to other people and our surroundings, and become more integrated with the world around us.

During art therapy we engage psychodynamic theory. Most importantly it takes place in a safe and supportive space with therapists who are empathic and warm. They can help the art maker integrate the intellectual and emotional by taking time to reflect and evaluate these creative experiences.

Our kids often have a lot to integrate yet they haven’t developed the language to express how they feel. As our visual art is changed by our movement and body rhythm, kids can often express more emotion in one painting, after a movement exercise, than a two hour conversation trying to articulate what they are actually experiencing.

A mum wanted her child to overcome a major phobia that was borne out of a near-death experience. The child was 4 years old at the time of the trauma. He didn’t have the words to express his anxiety. By recreating the ordeal with paint and cardboard, the child faced their fears, learnt positive behaviour and is now totally cured of their phobia.

Meanwhile research into art therapy is gaining ground in Australia, as it catches up with the international world. The University of South Australia is currently exploring the benefits of art therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. In hospitals around the world, stroke patients, palliative patients and chronically ill are all showing improved signs of well-being after sessions of art therapy.

If it wasn’t for the art therapy, our primary school captain might still be hanging out with the wrong crowd, roughing his way around the playground. Perhaps now he has painted himself a whole new pathway for life. 

Simona Weinstein is a qualified art therapist working with children and adults in the Bayside area. She is a local and international lecturer and author, works for the Victorian government and has donated many hours of art therapy for special needs groups. For more information visit