What to do together: art therapy for kids with eating disorders – even if you don’t draw!

When a child is struggling with an eating disorder, she or he is also struggling with self-worth, emotional instability, depression, moodiness, and anxiety set amongst generalized adolescent angst. As a parent, it can be very challenging to handle all of those feelings and contain them.

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The many colors and ability to mix paints and create pattern can be very soothing.

But the good news is that we don’t have to contain our children’s feelings – we just need to help them find healthy ways of expressing their feelings, while simultaneously seeking professional support as needed. But, of course, professional support is limited – we are the ones who actually live with our teenagers day-to-day, seeing their ups and downs, and struggling to find equilibrium in the face of constantly changing emotional states.

This is why having a toolbox of activities that you can do together can be very helpful. We have discussed several techniques for connecting with and grounding your child who has an eating disorder, and one effective technique is art therapy.

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A messy, tactile piece of art like this was satisfying to create.

Even if neither of you is artistic, the act of putting color on paper can be very therapeutic. When tested with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, weekly art sessions improved depression. In other studies, making art has been proven to provide a sense of control to patients with mental illness. Making art helps our kids with self-expression while enhancing coping skills, reducing stress, and boosting self-confidence.

Art therapy doesn’t have to be stuffy or skilled. Even the most basic art skills can become a powerful form of self-expression. Remember when your kids were small and you would pull out the craft box for them? Reinstate that activity, perhaps once a week, and just sit down with your children and some paper, colored pencils, paints, and anything else you have. Work side by side.

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An example of a healthy pre-teen affirming her self-confidence using art.

This doesn’t have to be “heavy” or “therapeutic” – just enjoy the act of making art together. You don’t have to talk about eating, not eating, anxiety or depression. Just be creative and enjoy each others’ company for a little while.

One word of warning: if your child is currently in a bad place emotionally, don’t be surprised if they create art that expresses their negative emotions. In fact, this is absolutely healthy. Your child is using art as it is meant to be used – to express emotions that are hard to communicate using words. You child might also be using his or her art as a way to test whether you can handle the full expression of him or herself.

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An example of teen artwork that may be alarming for a parent.

Many teens find that art and writing are great ways to both express themselves and find out whether anyone (especially their parents) is paying attention to their emotional distress and can actually handle their needs.

This is a tough place to be. When you love your child, you do not want to come face to face with the ugly demons they feel inside. But remember that we all feel ugly demons sometimes, and most of the time artistic expression is not a cause for alarm.

It is important that you do not express alarm at what your child creates. Instead, talk to your child about how the art makes him or her feel, and what he or she is trying to express with the art.

If you are concerned, or if it appears your child is in deep distress and/or traumatized, consider sharing the artwork with a therapist to help your child process the pain he or she is feeling.

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