Podcast: Art therapy may work 'like magic' on kids

Liu Xiaolin
Art therapy with children sometimes works "like magic," Rhonda Johnson said.
Liu Xiaolin

Podcast: EP19

Rhonda Johnson recalls being intrigued when she first learned about art therapy.

"My friends would come to me for advice, and I also love art. It almost marries these two things," Johnson, a board-certified art therapist who deals with children and adolescents, told Shanghai Daily in a Zoom interview.

Art therapy with children sometimes works "like magic," Johnson said.

"They draw and there it is, right on the page... their anger, their sadness. How small they feel in such a big world; how little control they feel they have. So you work with them, you allow them to express, even the bad thoughts they are having, in the safe place on a page.

"I just love doing that," she said.

Armed with Masters' degree in creative art therapy from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the mother of two worked in an outpatient clinic at a hospital after retirement and ran the art therapy program for children aged 8-17.

But when the pandemic struck, the program had to be shut down. She has since been doing private practice in New Jersey for almost a year.

Podcast: Art therapy may work 'like magic' on kids
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

Rhonda Johnson

Q: What influenced you to take up art therapy?

A: The influence of art therapy is really quite transformative. Of course, I understood that making art was calming for me. But I didn't realize before I had a therapist, before I was trained, that it actually allows your brain to work differently. Instead of the way we go through this cognition to form words and express ourselves, it gives your brain an ultimate root to express what's going on inside your feelings. You can interpret and see the evidence of one's inner feelings. When you look at what someone created on paper through paint or drawing, or what they might mold with clay.

There are all kinds of ways to express creativity but it always ... informs the clients, sometimes, of maybe they didn't know they were having some interesting feelings or difficult feelings, or unjoyful feelings. I find that so very intriguing. So later I had some other training that's called open studio process.

My traditional art therapy training, which is clinical, is about looking at artworks and try to diagnose what might be going on with the client. It's (about) making a treatment plan, and making progress notes.

Open studio process is very rooted in the philosophy that creating the artwork itself is healing for the person. And our job is simply to hold the space for them to do their creativity, to supply them with materials and encouragement. And to witness what they are doing. Allow them to be the one to speak about what the artwork is. That's very empowering, so that's being a good addition to my training. And that's more the approach I am using with my clients right now.

Podcast: Art therapy may work 'like magic' on kids
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

A children's chalk drawing

Q: Who are the clientele?

A:I focused on a particular population who are interesting to me and have a natural rapport with them. I love children. I think they are infinitely fascinating, funny and honest. Particularly, the ones who are just at the age. In the US, we would say they are ready for middle school, sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Also the ones that are going to high school. Like 11-13, then 14-17. They're going through such big changes in their cognition, in their emotions.

Something funny has happened since my private practice that even though all of my information on every platform and my website that tells its adolescent, I now also have some adult clients.

What children often have is a feeling of being misunderstood or rejected. When this happens to them for whatever reason – like, say, a parent might divorce; there might be a loss; a death in the family, or they might have to move and lose all the friends. They don't have control of the situation because they are children. They have strong feelings in reaction toward what's going on. But they don't know how to express them. They can't put it into words, so they act it out. They are rude, they are angry. They break things. They are slow when you need them to be fast. They talk back to their teacher. These are what we called "acting-out behaviors." Children who are doing these things wind up being seen by the therapist because they are disruptive to school and their parents don't know what to do with them.

If you can get them to express with art, that anger they're feeling, or the deep sadness. In fact, if you just engage with their imagination, those feelings would come out in their artworks. It seems even like magic sometimes, how reliable that is. I have to admit that sometimes, I don't even think it would work. But it always does. They draw and there it is, right on the page. Their anger, their sadness. How small they feel in such a big world; how little control they feel they have. So you work with them, you allow them to express, even the bad thoughts they are having, in the safe place on a page. Or acted out, tell a story. Tell a story about a boy who is so angry he would like the world to explode in a million pieces. It's so fascinating but letting that boy tell that story helps him feel calm, and help to express that anger, let it come out. And then it's not inside him.

I just love doing that.

Q: What is your general approach and what is the theoretical foundation?

A: There are so many theories ... but you engage the imagination so that venting can occur. How you do that depends on the art therapist.

I like to use humor, be playful with my clients. It is really about what does the client need. That is the most important thing, and get them to make art as soon as possible.

Podcast: Art therapy may work 'like magic' on kids
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

A children's chalk drawing

Q: What are the materials you commonly use in the therapy sessions?

A: Watercolor, acrylic, depending on their age. It also depends on their ability to keep things neat. Markers, color pencils, crayons, chalk, clay, glue and paper. These are the basic kits I use to create.

Also, color papers of all kinds and specialty papers. One thing I found interesting with some young children is that they enjoy origami. I didn't expect they would follow all the directions to make all the delicate folds. They were really into it. Recycled bottles, cardboard tubes and boxes and tapes...

There are millions of things you could use.

Q: Anything to look out for during therapy for children and adolescents?

A: Looking out for feelings that are underneath that is not apparent. It's not obvious when they come in; they are very loud and not listening. They are misbehaving. Yes, you have to address that.

But also why. Why are they misbehaving? What has happened to them? To be interested and respectful of the circumstances, like where they live, what kind of relationships they have, who they can depend on and trust. When you understand that, you understand more. Why their other behaviors are happening? I think that's the thing to look out for.

As a parent, you do learn about this along the way. None of us parents do this perfectly. That is what is happening with your children too. They show you behaviors you are not always pleased with.

But there is usually some explanation for them feeling misunderstood and unhappy. And if you can respect their feelings and ask them to behave better, the two things go together.

As a parent, I know how challenging that is while trying to get dinner done, laundry, and get them on their schedule, on time for school, get their homework done ... It's hard to hold all that at the same time.

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