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Art Therapy for Back to School Jitters

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

The stress of back to school looks different for everyone

Several of my clients, from elementary to high schoolers, have expressed how much art therapy has helped them cope with going back to school. After a long summer of fun, the thought of going back to routine alarm clocks, crowds of kids, being away from home, facing bullies, managing tons of homework, quizzes, tests, and just being in an environment where they do not feel emotionally supported is enough to cause any one of us to gasp from shock and fear.

When a young person comes into the studio with these types of concerns I've found that there's comfort in a providing a sensory activity that allows for a kinesthetic release. Whether it be a tray of sand, a fresh can of brightly-colored Play-Doh to squeeze, or a bag full of glitter to stick a hand into; giving my client something to play with and some time to unwind, often results in a long, deep, cleansing exhale.

Of course, playing with a stress ball or pounding a lump of clay may not be as effective when it's done in a stressful environment. The art therapy studio is a place where a child can freely express their worries and reservations without fear of being thwarted or judged. And while you may assume what's worrying your child, you may not realize that your child also has a pretty good read on what affects you, too. Just like you don't want to cause unnecessary stress to your kids, children do not like upsetting their parents.

I recently had a client say to me, "I know I can talk to my mom about anything regarding school, but I also know what upsets her, and I ask myself, 'Why did I even bring this up with her?" Oftentimes, kids will keep events that are scary or worrisome to themselves because they may feel like they are at fault or are ashamed about the situation. When your child is feeling anxious about something, like going back to school, it's important to validate those feelings and take them seriously. Offering positive enforcement and words of encouragement are fine, but validation is key. For example, when a child says to me, "I don't have any friends," I don't say, "Come on. Yes, you do." Instead I say, "That must be very lonely. Tell me more about it."

In the studio, I am lucky to be able to provide my young clients with an unending array of tools to express their feelings using art. This means that they have the opportunity to unwind, think about what they want to put down on to the paper, and then share what the image they created means to them. Often, by creating a piece of art, they are able to discover their own insights and come up with solutions to problems by themselves. At the very least, these feelings are released and they leave the studio feeling a bit lighter. Plus, they may choose to take their artwork home with them in order to have something tangible to refer to when telling the story of what they're facing or feeling to you. Or, they may be so proud of their artwork, they'll be asking you to display it proudly on the fridge.

Providing your child with tools to cope is paramount in dealing with day-to-day stressors and offering your child the materials and space to do so, at home, is a great way to encourage creative expression. I recommend investing in a few art supplies such as a box of oil pastels, colored pencils, and a watercolor palette along with a "mixed media" pad of paper. Throw it all into a shoe box and keep it handy. Going back to school and the weighty "backpack of stress" that comes along with it can be heavy, so why not use art as a way to unwind? You might even get some beautiful refrigerator art out of the deal.

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