Creative Therapies For Kids

Creative Therapy Art Therapy for Children

The word therapy conjures images of lying on a couch while a bearded man in spectacles takes silent notes. But there are a number of therapeutic approaches available which can help children deal with a wide range of challenges. We look at the most popular creative therapies for children and what they offer.

Children going through something difficult or traumatic often lack the skills to talk about their problem and work it through. You only have to ask your child what happened at school today to know that most kids aren’t exactly free with information.

Creative therapies are helpful as they can allow children to communicate at their own pace, without feeling interrogated or pressured.

‘It’s less direct than verbal therapy, the child can say what they need to in a fun, creative way, so that it doesn’t feel too threatening or direct,’ says dance movement therapist Sarah Boreham. ‘In a verbal therapy session a child might struggle to stay engaged. But in creative therapy they dictate how the issue is explored, so there’s a sense of empowerment for them – they’re choosing what takes place.’

Interested in learning more? Here’s a guide to some of the most popular creative therapies for kids out there:

ART THERAPY

This is a way of encouraging children to express themselves through painting, drawing or some other art form. ‘There’s something about art being intrinsic to all mankind,’ says Hepzibah Kaplan, director of the London Art Therapy Centre, the UK’s only dedicated group practice. ‘It’s been very much stripped out of the curriculum, but it’s a fully nourishing experience for people to be able to express themselves in a creative way.’

Who can benefit?
‘Children come to us with a range of issues and difficulties,’ says Kaplan. ‘They might be suffering a bereavement, going through a divorce, experiencing bullying or low self esteem. Otherwise they might have special needs, such as autistic spectrum disorder or a learning disability.’ Age-wise, children tend to be 5 and up, but it isn’t just for young people – the actor Sir Anthony Sher credits art therapy with helping him defeat cocaine addiction.

What effect can it have?
‘It can’t transform a learning difficulty but art therapy is very helpful in terms of stress reduction, managing anxiety and learning to cope with difficult situations,’ says Kaplan.

What does a typical session involve?
‘We have beautiful art studios and when children first arrive, they tend to walk around with absolute delight and glee,’ says Kaplin. ‘We show them around and they usually relish the freedom. The therapist then works at gently engaging the child in a conversation that might be reflective about the work.’

Where can you find out more?
Look for someone who’s a member of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) and registered with the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC). To find an art therapist local to you, visit BAAT.

What’s the cost?
Depending on where you are in the country, private art therapists charge £45-£75 per session.

MUSIC THERAPY

Lindsay McHale is head of music services at Nordoff Robbins, the UK’s biggest charitable provider of music therapy. She describes music therapy as ‘the strategic use of music to enable a person to develop new skills, promote wellbeing – either emotionally, socially, physically, cognitively or a combination of all these areas – and to develop their awareness and communication’.

‘Fundamentally we are all creative beings,’ she says. ‘We all respond to music and it can be a very effective and direct way for people to express themselves and build a relationship with another person through the act of live music-making.’ Nordoff Robbins therapists are highly skilled musicians and work with music flexibly and improvisationally to help children reach their potential.  

Who can benefit?
‘We see a huge range of children,’ says McHale. ‘At our practice in Croydon, and in our school-based work, we see children with a variety of needs, including autism, Asperger’s and learning disabilities. Some children have physical difficulties such as cerebral palsy, and many children and adults we work with are non-verbal. We also see children with emotional and behavioural problems, who have maybe been through a bereavement, or whose parents are separating. I also work with adopted children.’

Music therapy can be an incredibly effective intervention for children of all ages, no matter how limited their abilities – including those who can’t verbally express how they feel. ‘Because you work with what they can do, rather than what they can’t,’ says McHale.

What effect can it have?
‘One boy couldn’t concentrate at school and was always being sent to the head teacher,’ says McHale. ‘He was referred to music therapy as he’d shown an interest in drumming. He showed a natural gift in sessions and, with his music therapist, performed at a school concert. This gave him a platform to share something he was good at, and enabled his teachers and peers to see him in a different way, which helped his confidence and self-esteem. His weekly sessions became a creative and expressive outlet for him, and so his behaviour improved.’

What does a typical session involve?
‘Some sessions, such as Upbeats, a group class for autistic pre-schoolers, are fairly structured. But every session is different,’ says McHale. ‘Some have overall goals, but really what you’re focused on is making music together because we fundamentally believe that music development is also personal development. Often we’re working with whatever the child or adult brings on that particular day.’

Where can you find out more?
Nordoff Robbins has centres in North London and Croydon, but works with children and adults across the UK in a variety of partnership organisations, including schools, hospitals, hospice care and dementia care homes. For more information, visit Nordoff Robbins‘ website.

What’s the cost?
Sessions at Nordoff Robbins are subsidised, so cost between £5 and £25.

Music Therapy For Kids

DANCE THERAPY

‘Dance movement therapy – or dance movement psychotherapy, as some people call it – is the therapeutic use of the body, using dance as a source of information,’ says dance movement therapist Sarah Boreham. ‘The creative arts are particularly good for finding a way for children to express their emotions,’ she says. ‘Children are so quick to engage in the creative process. They just seem to get it.’

Who can benefit?
‘Some children who are referred have experienced some kind of abuse or bullying, or have problems at school. Others have difficulties with their families, such as a new baby or step-parent,’ says Boreham. ‘Otherwise they might have physical needs or disabilities, or a diagnosis such as ADD or autism.’

What effect can it have?
‘You can watch a child’s self esteem change, and see them become more confident,’ she says. ‘Sometimes they find a voice if they’re being bullied, or are having problems at home.’ Dance therapy can also help children learn to manage their emotions. ‘They can process feelings of sadness loss, anger and fear. Real change can happen in terms of children being able to know and express these feelings.’

What does a typical session involve?
‘Usually we do some kind of warm-up to bring awareness of the body through movement,’ says Boreham. ‘Then out of the warm up usually comes a theme. I use musical instruments, rhythm, drumming: all sorts of props. We might use pictures and storytelling, or roleplaying, or we might use our breath. We create scenes and create the child’s world, in a way.’ Sessions are mostly one-to-one, but group, sibling and parent-and-child sessions are also available.

Where can you find out more?
To find a dance therapist, contact the Association for Dance Movement Psychotherapy UK

What’s the cost?
Sessions typically cost £46-£60 per hour.

DRAMA THERAPY
‘Drama therapy is a creative form of psychotherapy that engages the client in the exploration of their internal material,’ says Sarah Mann Shaw, a drama therapist based in Nottingham. ‘It’s also a really nice way for kids to engage with psychological problems. You don’t get overwhelmed and it can be fun.’

Who can it benefit?
‘We work with a range of young people – perhaps they’ve experienced trauma or attachment difficulties, or have been adopted,’ she says. ‘Maybe they’re bedwetting or have low self-confidence, or perhaps a learning difficulty like dyslexia.’ Mann Shaw works with people of all ages, though her youngest client was 5.

What effect can it have?
‘It can be fantastic,’ she says. ‘A little boy came to me and told me that he didn’t have a heart – hearts were dangerous things to have because they hurt. With therapy he moved from an avoidant stance to an ambivalent stance to saying that he has a heart now, and it’s OK because he has a mummy to love.’ Another boy stopped bed-wetting after six sessions.

What does a typical session involve?
‘A typical session would last 50 minutes,’ says Mann Shaw. ‘Children come and play creatively – we may paint images or use stories. I work quite metaphorically – I’m interested in the story,’ she says. ‘So I might ask, “Why is the dragon trying to eat the mouse?” Or we can talk about the difficulties of the witch – not knowing if she’s a good or bad witch.’

Where can you find out more?
To find a local therapist, visit the British Association of Drama Therapists.

What’s the cost?
Many drama therapists offer a sliding scale, but fees tend to be £45-£60 per session.

PLAY THERAPY

Play therapy is a way of helping children to make sense of their feelings, or traumatic events, and come to terms with what might be troubling them. It allows them to ‘play out’ what they might struggle to verbalise. ‘Play is of itself therapeutic for children – it’s healing, energising, educative,’ says play therapist Alison Webster.

Who can benefit?
It can help a huge range of children, including those who’ve been through something difficult or upsetting, or who are being disruptive or rebellious at school. It can also help with eating or sleeping disorders, or children who struggle with verbal communication, such as those on the autistic spectrum.

What effect can it have?
Play therapy can help children with ASD learn to socialise and create meaningful relationships. It can also help with challenging behaviour. ‘One girl who came to me had a very traumatic accident,’ says Webster. ‘Afterwards her behaviour deteriorated and she started lashing out. We did some medical play, which allowed her to work through the feelings she had towards her treatment. Afterwards the difference was so dramatic her mother said, “It’s like my child has come back to me.”’

What does a typical session involve?
Play therapists usually have a huge range of toys and activities at their disposal, whether that’s sand and water, clay, doll’s houses or puppets. But sessions are all about following the child’s lead and seeing what interests them. Sometimes this can involve re-enacting painful experiences. ‘A key therapeutic goal is to get alongside kids, whatever level they’re at,’ says Webster. ‘It’s very much a dialogue you have with a child through play – it’s a window into their world.’

Where can you find out more?
There’s more information and a list of practitioners on the British Association of Play Therapists.

What’s the cost?
Most therapists offer a sliding scale of fees, but sessions tend to cost around £40-£65.

Alex Manson-Smith is a journalist, copywriter and blogger, and regular contributor to Mr Fox. She has two sons, aged 5 and 2.

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