Preschoolers, elementary age children, tweens and teens can all have a hard time expressing their emotions. Parents, standing by and watching, can feel helpless during their children’s times of greatest need. “Children may not always comprehend what exactly is making them feel sad or worried, so explaining those feelings to you or others might be next to impossible,” says Ashley Ormsby, a certified mindfulness meditation coach, based in Easton, Connecticut. Instead of putting pressure on your child to explain themselves, you may have to look for clues and really listen to whatever they are able to share, adds Jennifer Theriault, LCSW, a child and adolescent therapist in nearby Westport, Connecticut. "Since children often can’t find words to express their emotions, you almost have to be a detective solving a case," she explains.
So how, specifically, do you do that? The answer is actually simpler than you may think: It’s all about encouraging creative play. Arts and crafts, music, building blocks, playing games, and storytelling are all great creative activities for kids that have been directly linked to better mental health. Here are three main mental health benefits of creativity and ways to encourage it in your child so you can support their healthy emotional development.
Mental Health Benefit #1:
Creativity Helps Your Child
Learn to Manage Their Emotions
"When children hold feelings inside, their minds are cluttered and they can’t be truly present,” Ormsby says. “They don't leave room to take in all they can learn at school or to enjoy time with family and friends." As a parent, you can provide your child with a safe space to work through their emotions.
Arts and crafts is probably the easiest first step, given that you most likely have tons of crayons, markers, and paper lying around your house. “Kids who struggle to communicate their feelings using words may be able to draw or paint their feelings instead,” according to child psychologist and mindfulness coach Sarah Conway, based in Australia. Research from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Art Therapy Institution, has proven that children who create art regularly are able to reduce negative feelings and manage their emotions in productive ways.
Actor Emma Stone talked openly about her own experience using art to help her work through her anxiety as a child. During an appearance on The Stephen Colbert Show, she shared a drawing she created when she was nine years old. It was a picture of a girl beside a small green monster and with a caption that read, "I'm bigger than my anxiety." Stone’s illustration proves how the act of drawing can help a child gain control over their emotions rather than being consumed by them. By expressing so publicly and honestly about her anxiety, and through her work as a mental health advocate with the Child Mind Institute, Stone inspired other celebrities—such as Selena Gomez, Serena Williams, and Pink— to join her in raising awareness about mental health issues.
Although drawing is the “go-to” creative activity that can help kids to learn to manage their emotions, Ormsby suggests some other game-based creative ideas you can try with your child as well:
Mindful Walk: Getting outside is always a great way to help calm your body and mind. Before you head out together, name five of your favorite colors, and then try to find 3-5 things in those colors on your walk.
Name Your Feelings: Name a bunch of feelings together (example: happy, sad, angry, worried, excited) and spend time together creating a character for each of these feelings. Give each character a name and imagine how you would care for this character if they were a friend and feeling a big emotion. For example, maybe you name sad "Sad Sally." You can talk about how Sally cries or gets a belly ache when she’s feeling sad. Then ask, “How would you care for those tears and that belly ache if Sally was here today?” When you ask them mindful questions in a fun way, it naturally supports your child's well-being by allowing them to devise solutions they can use for themselves.
“Doodle Find” Journal Exercise: Ask your child to spend about 3-5 minutes covering a piece of paper with doodles in different colors that represent feelings they’ve had throughout the week. For example, if your child has felt angry, they can use red and hold the marker tightly in their hand as they draw. If they’ve felt calm, they can use gray and hold the marker more delicately. Thinking through the lens of shapes and colors gives your child a chance to express and process through their emotions.
Step Two of “Doodle Find”: After your child has filled most of the paper with their doodles, go back and look at the shapes they drew and try seeing them from a new point of view. Maybe your child can turn a doodle into a tree, or perhaps one looks like a snake or a bird. Transforming the doodles into images helps your child feel more control over their emotions and has a calming effect on their mind.
Find Your Feelings: You and your child each write an emotion down on paper but don’t let the other one see what it says. Next, cross it out so you can’t read the word (the back-and-forth action with your hand is a naturally calming exercise). When you’re both finished, exchange pages and try to guess which emotion the other person wrote down.
Mental Health Benefit #2:
Creativity Allows Your Child
to Develop Social Skills
Research has shown that social-emotional development can predict success in school, relationships, and beyond. Through creative group activities, you can encourage your child to build close connections to peers and provide them with a network for support, advice, and comfort. When they participate in art activities together, your child and their friends all develop self-awareness and social awareness, gain new perspectives and create positive relationships.
Here are two activities Ormsby recommends for helping your child build social skills:
Active Listening Game: When your child has a group of friends over, have them play this game. Start them off with a sentence to begin a story. “Once upon a time, there was a group of friends who loved to….” Your child then repeats the sentence you gave and adds to the story. The next person repeats both sentences and adds more to the story; the next person does the same, and so on. Everyone must pay close attention to ensure they can all keep the story going. Being an active listener allows your child and their friends to each feel seen and heard and thereby builds stronger bonds.
Doodle Swap: This is similar to Doodle Find and works well with a group. Start with one piece of paper, pass it around, and each person draws one doodle, scribble, or shape. Keep passing the paper for 5-10 minutes. Once the time is up, try to create tiny pictures within the doodle. For example, a triangle can become a little hat, an oval can become a fish, etc. This exercise gets your child and their friends to focus their minds, which helps to clear away any anxious thoughts they may be having. It also helps them practice patience, taking turns, and sharing ideas.
Mental Health Benefit #3:
Creativity Builds Your Child’s Confidence and Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is about valuing and feeling worthy of love, care, and acceptance. It allows your child to securely navigate the world, stand up for themselves, and try new things. A great way to help your child build confidence through creativity is by celebrating the artwork they’ve made through the years. Consider having your child help you put together an art book, and be sure to have them choose a favorite piece of their artwork that you can print as a wrapped canvas or have custom framed to hang up in their room. These products showcase their work and encourage them to be proud of their masterpieces, which gives them a feeling of self-confidence.
If your child has recently passed a milestone such as Kindergarten graduation or another rite of passage, work together to create a memory book commemorating the occasion. A keepsake like this can be especially comforting to look at during times when your child may be experiencing sadness or anxiety. The reminder that they are loved and that there will be good times ahead, just like the ones from the past, can be a much-needed confidence boost during a hard time.
Check out a few additional creative ideas for building your child’s confidence and self-esteem, courtesy of Ormsby:
Affirmation Artwork: Write affirmations with your child to repeat each day. Each affirmation begins with something like "I am…." Or "I am working on…." Write your affirmations in a sketchbook, and then use watercolors to design the page. Affirmations can be changed every week or whenever you see fit.
Name Affirmation: Have your child write their name at the top of a large piece of paper and add 'is' after their name. For example, "Emma is…." Then they write their name again vertically. For each letter in their name, ask them to write a word about everything they love about themselves.
Boundary Q+A: Create a mini quiz for your child to help them identify the areas they can use some mindful tools in setting boundaries. Some questions could be: “Why am I afraid to say no to something I don’t want to do?” “Why do I worry so much about disappointing others?”
Boundary Circle Mindful Exercise: After identifying the areas in which your child may need some help, draw a large circle on a piece of paper and have them write the boundaries they would like to set with family and friends. Write out reasons that stopped them from setting those boundaries, such as “embarrassment,” “afraid to hurt someone’s feelings,” “care what other people think,” “thinking the other person won’t listen,” etc. When you’re finished, ask your child to color over the reasons as the act of overcoming or eliminating those feelings.
By creating calm, safe spaces for your child to express their feelings through creative activities, you can help foster their lifelong mental wellness. Start trying some of these activities with your child today!