Connecting with children via art therapy

Liu Xiaolin
Rhonda Johnson believes the value of art therapy is about "giving symbols of what's happening in relationships."
Liu Xiaolin

Podcast: EP20

Rhonda Johnson believes the value of art therapy is about "giving symbols of what's happening in relationships." In this way, people are able to take feelings out of their minds, put them on paper and think about them.

"Once it's on the paper, it's not so personal. They feel a little less on the spot, a little less vulnerable, in a way," Johnson said. "It creates a bridge. It makes what could be a tough conversation something more playful."

Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Johnson is a board-certified art therapist for children who has a private practice in New Jersey.

This week, we continue our conversation with her in which she shares her takeaway from Open Studio Process training, thoughts on family therapy and advice on daily practice to improve family bonds.

Connecting with children via art therapy
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

Rhonda Johnson built a mock-up "newsroom" for a group therapy session with teenage children.

Q: A post on your website mentioned this "newsroom" you had on a group therapy session. Tell us about it.

A: There was a group of 11- and 12-year-old that I was working with that we were having a lot of problems.

One of the girls in the group had to apologize for something she said to me previously that was very rude. She left and I continued my thought process of what to do with this group. And I thought, I can give her a way to tell the news, to tell her version of the news. And that's when I thought I'd make a "newsroom."

I moved all the furniture around and created different stations. A station for reporters, an anger desk with flowers, a shoe box and cardboard, too. I also made a camera.

And it worked. There was no fighting. They were a little bit confused because all the furniture was in different places. It wasn't the usual routine, so they didn't approach it with the usual bad behavior. And they were wonderful.

Someone was on camera. They took turns being the anchor, and they read their news. When they left, I could tell there was a calmness. And they were also proud of themselves, because they had actually accomplished something. And I was able to praise them, instead of threatening them that they would not be able to come back next time.

Q: Do you assign homework?

A: For homework, I give my clients choices. They can do something called "energy made visible" where they pick a day or time to do some artwork and make their energy visible on the page. That can be anything but it helps to free up their minds.

Maybe I'll do this with all of my clients, I'm thinking. "What color is your heart today?" Because if you ask someone about their heart, almost everyone is going to relate that to their feelings. So it gives you a little visual clue of how they're feeling.

Connecting with children via art therapy
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

A painting by a client of Johnson which is titled "A Fun Place to Be"

Q: What did you learn from Open Studio Process training that you later incorporated into your work method?

A: I went for a one-week training. My biggest takeaway is it made creating artwork the bigger part of my work and not so focused on diagnosing each person.

When I trained with Open Studio it opened up so many possibilities, like when we made artwork the paper is always taped to the wall and not on the table in front of you. It made it possible to make these big paintings that I would rarely take the time to do for myself. I thought about what the advantage would be for my clients if I give them this space. So I rearranged my studio when I got back. I made it possible for some children I was working with to work standing up. It's a kind of revelation.

There's a lot of physical movement. You put the materials in one central place and the clients come back and forth to fetch materials to make art. Before, I was in the habit of just setting the tables like dinner.

Using the whole room and utilizing music to help create an atmosphere, I've been doing much, much more since the training.

There's a part of the Open Studio Process that's called "no comment." That rule means only the artists get to say what their art is about. No one else can say anything, positive or negative.

When I got back to working with children after the training, I realized the limits of no comment. That is children don't feel seen unless you really comment on their artworks. They don't want to be the only ones to say something about their artworks. That was the limit for them.

I used the open studio process to make my art therapy practice more expansive, and more focused on making marks on paper and making your energy visible. That's the foundation for something I do now.

Connecting with children via art therapy
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

Handmade craft arts titled "Alien Creatures New to Planet Earth" by a group of 10-12-year-olds

Q: You also provide family therapy. Is that because parent-child relations are one of the main sources of stress for your clients?

A: Source of stress seems a little unfair. Parenting is so challenging. Just when you think you are a genius parent because things are going well with one child, you have another you'll quickly learn he/she has a completely different personality, and what you did with one doesn't work with the other. So what to do?

If your child is having problems, some parents are wise enough to seek assistance to maybe change their approach to how they interact with the child. Family therapy can be really helpful, because instead of talking about just one person or the other, it's really talking about relationships and how the communication and sense of trust are.

The other thing that happens when families make art together is they're not seeing each other in their usual roles. Each person gets a chance to speak and each person gets to have their art seen. It gives them a new way to appreciate each other that can then be carried over into their regular lives.

Sometimes we just get into routines with our family members, and if you don't interrupt them you never stop to think, "Could I be more kind? Could I be more patient? Could I say when I appreciate something instead of taking it for granted?"

Connecting with children via art therapy
Courtesy of Rhonda Johnson

Johnson's collection of homemade puppets

Q: Are there any handy art-making practices we can do at home to improve family bonds?

A: Two of the natural things that happen in a family are cooking and housework. Those are two opportunities. Another one is checking in. Just like parents like to ask, "How are you doing at school today?" Ask this: "What color is your heart today?" It's such a good question for all kinds of people. That might get you more information as a parent.

Back to the cooking and housework – sometimes we forget how much children want to be included in what's going on and learn new skills. Sometimes it slows us down as parents to have them help us, but they feel so good and it's creative in a way. I guess it's in the role-playing area where you let them start to become the people they are going to become by giving them responsibilities that make them feel important. "I want you to be with me," is what it says.

If you do it once a week it builds confidence in them. The more important they feel the better they feel, and they are more willing to try new things. Maybe math doesn't seem so challenging after they have more confidence.

Q: Suppose I'm your client today. What kind of practice would you advise me to do right now? I have crayons, watercolor paints and a pen.

A: Something lovely to do is to use a crayon and make any kind of lines you want on the paper. Then get your watercolors ready and see what happens when you brush watercolors over the paper. Use whatever colors please you and cover the entire piece of paper. Then stop to look at the beauty you created. Then if you like, after it dries, maybe take the pen and draw some details and see what you have. Sign your name and be proud of it.

And if you'd like, show me what you drew. I would be more than happy to look at it with you.

Special Reports