Allow your Child to Express Emotions Creatively

How wonderful is it to witness the curiosity of children, their creative way of thinking and doing things, as well as their unique ways of communicating?  As parents, we want our children to be happy, to excel in life and not be hindered by any negative and damaging experiences.  Reality is, we don’t have control over it.  Under normal circumstances, we send them off to school (whether it is primary or high school) and if we are lucky and fortunate enough, they will come home in the afternoon and tell us about their day, their friends and what they learnt.  Whether it is positive or negative, we want them to tell us so that we can serve as a beacon of support, insight and reason to them no matter what.  But what do we do if we notice changes in their behaviour, they aren’t communicating with us and their creative spirit of expressing themselves diminishes?  Children need to learn how to express themselves creatively and by developing these skills gives them a strong foundation for their intellectual and emotional growth and development.

Emotions are also known as feelings and there are many of them.  It could be feeling afraid, depressed, relaxed, stressed, confused, confident, excited, lonely, embarrassed or ashamed, just to name a few.  It is important to learn how to be able to identify these emotions and after that, you can list times when you felt these emotions.  You might notice that there is emotional development required on areas that you think needs improvement.  What you have just done is increasing your awareness of emotions.  Maybe you will be able to express your emotions by saying – “I am feeling . . .”.  Have you noticed how emotions gets translated into facial expressions, body language and behaviour?

Please note that this blog is not written to turn you into an art therapist, it will just give you a bit of insight into children’s drawings and their other art products.

We have to understand though, that not every child is a painter or sculptor.  Their talents vary and you might need different tools to cultivate and encourage their expression and growth.  Also, it is important for you to respect your child’s wishes of what happens to their art products.  They might not want it to be posted on a social media platform or even shared with their siblings and family.  Their art products might be very intimate and personal and by sharing their art products without their consent might breach their need for privacy and could even silence them (which is what we do not want).  Don’t overthink their art products though.  If a young toddler grabs a black crayon and scribbles with it all over their page, it might just mean that they couldn’t reach the other colours or that that specific crayon was the only whole one in the box, or maybe they tried to draw the night sky.  First tip, ask them to explain their picture to you in their own words, if they want to.  Remember it is all about make-believe and what it can do to help your child.  Now you might ask, how do I then see the warning signs and react to it appropriately?  I will get to that soon . . .

From the age of 18 months to approximately 2 ½ years old, children enter the babble-scribble stage.  Here they begin to scribble and discover the look and feel of the art medium that they are being introduced to.  From 2 ½ to 4 years of age is the word-shape stage.  This is where they begin to outline forms within the scribbles.  From 4 to 7 years old is the sentence-picture stage where they draw images with a purpose in mind and are mostly eager to explain to you what the shapes and images mean.  The ages between 7 to 11 is the word-shape stage and the first artistic stage of sex differentiation, for example that mommy has breasts on the paper and daddy doesn’t.  This is the stage where it’s easier to spot warning signs of learning disabilities and emotional trouble.  As you can see, children go through different developmental phases as they grow older.  Therefore, we cannot use the evaluation of 9-year-old on a product created by a 5-year-old.  Another thing, should your child be mentally challenged or a learning-disabled child, please also allow them the opportunity to create in their own way and not to measure them to the standards of other children who are not challenged or disabled.

I thought of giving you a few activities that you can give your child to encourage them to express their emotions creatively.  Firstly, you want to create an environment that is available for free expression, it might be their bedroom, a playroom, the garden or even the garage (as long as the children can’t reach the hardware tools and chemicals)  Try to give them enough space for free movement.  Secondly are the tools that your child will need to create such art products.  This could be mud, pebbles or stones, building blocks, food, non-toxic colouring crayons/pencils/koki pens, que-cards, water paint, music, blunt scissors, old magazines, paper, hand-puppets, clay, maybe a sandbox with plastic characters and trees to put in it or even a white board.  Please don’t spend an elaborate amount of money on these items, the cheap stuff works just as good and remember to look for things around the house that can also be used.  If you don’t want the children to use certain materials, make it clear to them that they cannot use it and preferably remove the materials from their area (remove the temptation).  (Side note:  please keep an eye on your children, you don’t want them to accidently choke on something.  Pop in every few minutes to see if everything is still going smoothly, but do not hover or try to micro-manage the process).  Most importantly though, is time.  Give your child ample time to create.  Let them feel comfortable and safe without any pressure of a time limit.  If they cannot or do not want to finish their product today, tomorrow is another day, and that is acceptable.  At the end of the day, you want them to feel free to express themselves as accurately as possible, within their own boundaries, according to their own interests and personalities and without interference or pressure.

  • Drawings:

Through creative expression, children at a very young age naturally begin to use drawings to organize the multitude of new experiences they encounter and to create a sense of balance within themselves.  Allow the child to draw freely.  You can suggest to the child to draw a picture of the house and everybody in it or something that they witnessed or experienced at school.  Make sure that you have enough paper and a wide variety of coloured pencils/crayons available and if the child wants to draw a variety of pictures, then they would have the material available already.

  • Music and Dancing:

Music influences moods.  Some might help you feel relaxed or exited while others make you feel sad, angry or irritated.  Ask the child to draw or paint this feeling while listening to the music.  I found that interpretive dance through music tend to release a variety of emotions.  If the child can tune into his/her own body and the ability of free movement while linking emotions to it, can create a wonderful creative platform in becoming one with their emotions.  Try to identify which music will help with activating motivation and positive emotions.

Alternatively, you can ask your child to create their own fictitious CD or album, a CD about their life.  This CD is all about them and when they design their CD cover, ask them to give the CD a name.  Then the fun part begins, they can put any songs on their CD, they can make up song names or put real song names on there, but try to motivate them to put songs on their CD that have meaning for them.  It can be quite an eye opener to see what the child comes up with.

  • Writing:

This is more effective with older children in the form of journaling.  The child needs to be encouraged to write their emotions down in a calm way where they can express their emotions in a healthy manner.  It is important for you as a parent to respect their privacy and not to read their journal without their consent.  This serves as a release for them and should they feel that their privacy is threatened, they might only write what they think you want to read and not express their emotions in a true and honest manner.  By not reading their journal, shows the adolescent that they can trust you in respecting their privacy and that you have their best interests at heart.  This is a big step and a door that they can use when they feel ready to talk to you.  Remember, the journal isn’t about you, it’s about the child and their comfort zone in expressing their emotions.

  • Clay:

Ask the child to build something out of the clay that he/she wants to tell you about themselves, what their interests are or who they are.  Now is the time for you to get creative as a parent and make your own sculpture while your child is making their own.  Afterwards, you can ask questions about the sculpture, for example why certain colours were used, what the sculpture would say if it could talk, what the sculpture likes or do not like, what the sculpture wants the world to know about itself.  This could be a very informative exercise if the child feels safe in sharing and explaining and not feeling judged or pressured.

  • Sandbox:

Here you would need a good size sandbox, halfway filled with clean sand and a good selection of miniature toys, natural objects and other objects that could signify symbols in your household or community.  Invite the child to build a family world in the sand or a school world or other areas that you might feel needs attention.  Give the child free range to put objects where they want to put it.  It might look out of place to you, but the child placed it there for a reason and you do not want to interfere in the process.  Remember to give the child space and time to complete this project.  Once completed, ask the child to tell you a story about what they built – what does the rock in the middle of the sandbox mean or why is there a river between one animal and the rest, you might even ask the child to name the characters in the sandbox and to connect emotions and characteristics to the characters.  You might gain valuable knowledge through this exercise.  Please just remember, you need to provide the child with a safe, non-judgemental and comfortable environment where they can feel free to share.

  • Hand Puppets:

If you do not have hand puppets, you can make some by using old socks or empty toilet tissue rolls as a body and use scrap household material to build characters out of them, you can also use small and inexpensive soft-toys as puppets.  Try to have a nice variety available, some animals, some people and some mystical figures.  Incorporate emotions into the facial expressions of the characters, like aggression, loving, nurturing, timid or excited and happy faces, just to name a few.  They mustn’t just tell a story but try to act it out through using the different hand puppets, this should be encouraged.  This is also a very powerful tool.  Keep yourself as an adult in check, do not jump to negative and frightening conclusions straight away.  Remember who is important – the child.  All you need to do is listen, ask interesting and inviting questions and be there for support.

  • Que-Cards or Your Own Facial Expressions:

Here you want to encourage the child to link facial expressions to emotions.  You can either use que-cards that show different emotions, or you want to ask the child to show you how the facial expressions will look like with certain emotions.  For example, ask the child how they would show (on their own face) that they are happy, surprised, sad, excited, worried, frustrated or even hurt.  You can even make the facial expressions yourself and ask the child to explain to you the emotion that they witness on your face.  Ask them questions on why they think that it shows a certain emotion and have fun discussing and experimenting with the different facial expressions.

If you want a template with different facial expression que-cards, let me know and I will email it to you.

These are just a few exercises that you can try at home that should give you some indications of what the child feels and experiences.  Have fun with these exercises, remember to keep the environment safe and judgement-free, but most of all, you are the parent/caregiver and at the end of the day, the child wants love, acceptance and understanding and not fear and anxiousness.

Earlier I gave you a short description per age group which should give you a relatively good indication of the development process that children go through.  We have to take in consideration the cultural differences, changes occurring in society, family structures, history, the current family dynamic and age appropriate progress of each child before coming to a clearer and more effective intervention plan.  What are the warning signs that you must look out for then?  Let me start by saying that each child and each case is different.  All these beautiful children have their own unique personalities and perspectives on the world and therefore I cannot give you 100% accurate warning signs, but I can give you some guidelines.

  • Is the child not controlling the art medium correctly?
  • Is the child shying away from activities related to any form of showing emotions?
  • Is the child separating him/herself from the rest of the family in drawings/sandbox images?
  • Can the child not differentiate between different emotions or explain why that emotion is relevant?
  • Are there overall and distinct dark colours and thick, aggressive lines being used in the art projects?
  • Is there a violent undertone to the art project?
  • Is the attention span of the child very short or does the child loose interest very quickly?
  • What information does the child provide when telling the story about the art project? What characteristics does the different characters and objects take on?  Is this information disturbing to you?
  • Is there evidence of floating abandoned objects?
  • Are there images in the art projects that’s relatively disturbing and that gets repeated over and over again? Some of these (for example gaping mouths) eventually spread to other parts of the pictures and might get more violent as time goes on (gaping mouths might escalate to gaping mouths with sharp pointy teeth).

These days there are so many useful resources available to help us handle problems or concerns.  Neighbours, friends and family (depending whether they experienced the same problem personally), paediatricians, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists etc.  With all these resources at your disposal, it is a good idea to do your research.  Find the right mental health therapist that will suit your needs, be prepared to put in the work with your child and become involved and supporting as much as possible.  You do not have to deal with this alone and the child doesn’t have to deal with their struggles alone either.

It is good to know what children are communicating through their artwork, but it isn’t enough.  Children need to be invited and encouraged to continue to express themselves and it is up to you and those people around you and the child to create and sustain an inviting, safe and caring environment.

Once again, I would like to end my blog with a quote or two and the following really resonated with me and emphasized what I wrote in this blog.  The first one is from Cristen Rodgers saying “We are all artists, painting our lives upon the canvas of reality.  Mix the colours your own way and apply emotion liberally.  Don’t be afraid to let your brushstrokes show, and above all else, make sure your art has soul.”, and I couldn’t resist putting the following quote in from Hans Hofmann who said “A work of art is a world in itself reflecting senses and emotions of the artist’s world.”, and as a bonus this last one from Howard Pyle who said “Art is the expression of those beauties and emotions that stir the human soul.”.

Remember that art and expression therapy can help by providing a non-judgemental and safe environment where children can express their feelings and other matters openly in a creative way, especially when they might not always have the right words available to express themselves.  Not only the children, but also the people invested in the child’s life will benefit from this experience by getting the correct tools to deal with life challenges and experiences.

As a reminder, GEM Mental Health Therapy and Coaching has decided to offer Skype Video Calls, WhatsApp Calls and WhatsApp Video Chats in order to reach as many people as possible.  I have also decided to incorporate Counselling via Email, which seems a bit unorthodox, but some clients do not have the freedom and privacy to discuss heart matters in the enclosed environment that they find themselves in at this time.  Please do not hesitate to reach out so that we can work together on your mental health as we face these challenging times.

Thank you very much for reading my blog.  I truly hope that it helped somebody, somewhere.  Please send any feedback or comments to and remember to have a look out for a new blog every week.

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