Art therapy is frequently used in treating eating disorders because it’s a great way to help people express their feelings. Most people who have eating disorders repress dark feelings like sadness, anger, frustration, and jealousy. But these feelings are all a natural part of being human.
In recovery, a person must learn how to process these negative feelings without using their eating disorder behaviors to cope. Art therapy is one way to help people who have eating disorders tap into these deep unexpressed feelings.
When a child is struggling with an eating disorder, they are 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.
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.
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Art therapy toolbox for parents
There are professionals who are trained and experienced in giving kids art therapy. Of course this does not replace those important and trained professionals. But parents don’t have to be therapists or artists to support kids in recovery. Instead, we just need to build a toolbox of things we can do with our kids to support them in feeling and expressing their emotions.
And while many parenting toolboxes are virtual and have more to do with mental exercises, this time you get to create a physical toolbox of art supplies. Here are some things you want to have on hand … maybe you have some of these left over from your kids’ childhood!
- Paper, canvas, wooden boxes, cardboard shapes
- Pens, pencils, markers, paint, glue, paintbrushes
- Felt, buttons, sequins, glitter, fur, googly eyes
- Collage images (e.g. words, nature, shapes) from magazines
Whether your toolbox is simple or elaborate isn’t as important as the fact that you have art supplies ready to go.
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.
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.
Dealing with big emotions
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. Your child might also be using their art as a way to test whether you can handle the full expression of their emotions. Hint: handle it! This is an essential part of healing.
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. Art therapy is helpful in treating eating disorders exactly because it helps people get in touch with their feelings.
It is important that you do not express alarm at what your child creates. Instead, talk to your child about how the art makes them feel, and what they are trying to express with the art. Help them talk about their feelings.
If you are concerned, or if it appears your child is in deep distress and/or traumatized, consider sharing the artwork with your child’s eating disorder treatment team so they can help your child process the pain they are feeling.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.