The young boy walked into the studio in tears, exclaiming he did not want his father to leave.
Just weeks before this, that same boy would virtually push his parents out of the door, eager to have my full attention as we embarked on a creative journey together.
The next day, a young girl who is especially chatty during art class, arrived clasping onto her mother’s leg, also begging her not to leave. She barely spoke during most of the one-hour workshop.
What changed? Several weeks of isolation, when our nation was told to lock down as a killer virus could take any one of us away at any time.
In the months leading up to this, we were confronted by endless news stories about how our country was going up in flames during what is now referred to as our Black Summer.
It may take years to fully understand the physiological repercussions of the stress we have all endured for the better part of a year.
While adults may be able to dilute their stress by confiding in others, children can find it difficult to put into words how they are feeling.
Because of this, it can be easy to miss the signs that you even have an anxious child. Don’t be fooled. The very thing that makes us human ensures that we have all been psychologically affected.
So, how can we help an anxious child?
GOOD NEWS AND BAD FOR THE ANXIOUS CHILD
The bad news is, though the fires are out and the virus, at least in this country, seems to be under control, the stress isn’t over.
We are still being warned that Coronavirus (COVID-19) lurks amongst us and we must be vigilant with hygiene and social distancing.
We are being told that our Black Summer was just a forerunner to coming events due to climate change. And while on the subject of climate change, it is impossible to shield children from the reports of a dying planet.
The good news is we can help our children deal with the current concerns and teach them techniques to cope with future stress.
If children can’t express their fears verbally, how can we help?
We can offer them an alternative to words – art and crafts.
Without even realising it themselves, children, when given the opportunity, can paint the perfect picture of their feelings. I don’t mean this literally – that ‘painting’ could be a cardboard creation, a pencil drawing, a sculpture, mosaic or any form of creative expression. And, just as adults can dilute their stress by talking about it, children can manage their anxiety by expressing it creatively.
It’s a way of taking some of those inside feelings to the outside, where they can disperse and cause less pain.
While online activities can be a wonderful distraction, they only serve to mask stress and anxiety. When the game or show is over and the online fog has lifted, the anxious child is still filled with stress.
Creating things by hand, however, is empowering. It offers the opportunity to make a new story, build a new world, and create a sense of freedom.
HOW ART HELPS THE ANXIOUS CHILD
I’ve witnessed this many times with Wacky Workshops students. Recently, a 12-year-old girl had been telling me about the beach holidays her family had enjoyed every year. She had been especially looking forward to this year’s planned overseas holiday at one of the world’s most beautiful and famous beaches. That plan didn’t work out, but she created her own beautiful beach scene. This not only provided a fun toy she could use to recreate beach holiday memories and imagine new ones, but it was also a way to create a sense of freedom at a time when none of us is feeling particularly free.
Going back to those students who were frightened to part from their parents – the young boy’s dad hung around until we became so immersed in a new project that the child was once again his happy, outgoing self. The project was a treehouse for his koala toy. Koalas had been on his mind because of the news reports about how many we lost during the Black Summer fires. He may not be able to save them, but creating a special treehouse for his koala gave him a sense of empowerment.
The young girl became her chatty self during the last five minutes of the class as she made the finishing touches to her beautiful unicorn world. She had created a safe and happy place, complete with a giant rainbow of joy.
SIGNS OF AN ANXIOUS CHILD
Each child has reacted differently to the stress. It’s not always easy to pick up on the signals.
There have been some students who have shown no outward signs of stress and appear completely happy, but their artworks tell a different story.
Some show their fear and uncertainty by hanging onto their parents extra tight. These are relatively easy signals to see. However, others, who are usually calm, polite, and dedicated, may act out. This doesn’t mean they have suddenly become a ‘naughty’ child. It’s the sign of an anxious child trying to cope with those feelings.
Some may show a lack of enthusiasm as if the joy has been knocked out of them. Others might appear extra tired or withdrawn.
Others lose their ability to focus. Some of my most focused students seemed to completely lose their way upon return to art classes. It has taken a few lessons and a lot of prompting to help them regain that focus and enthusiasm.
FIGHTING FIRE FEAR – THE WACKY WAY
During the fires, several students were able to express their feelings through art.
One girl, while creating a series of pictures to represent television shows, drew a fire. I asked her what channel that was and her reply was, “The news”. This opened the door to a conversation about how she felt about the fires and the chance to offer a glimmer of hope amongst the flames.
Another student created a leafy collage that included burnt leaves she had found outside the studio. We had lots of those. She was quick to point out that the green leaves represented new growth and the bush becoming healthy again. She had created a story with her own happy ending, helping to alleviate some of her stress.
Right before Wacky Workshops was forced to temporarily close due to lockdown and some children had already begun homeschooling, one student was learning online about the sea. She was sad not to be physically at school. We decided to pretend the Wacky studio was school and do a project that went along with her learning module. She started an under the sea diorama. Sadly, Wacky was forced to close before she could complete it. However, when she returned to art classes, this student was able to finish the project. She was so proud of her efforts that she couldn’t keep the smile from her face.
HOW PARENTS CAN HELP AN ANXIOUS CHILD
You don’t need an art studio to help your child work through their stress with creativity. It certainly helps to have a space where mess is not an issue. Children will pick up on your stress. Whether it be caused by the mess they are making or even your concern for their welfare.
Find a place where your child is free to experiment without concerns about staining carpet or furniture.
Find a time when you can be with your child, without any interruptions. The creative flow can be so easily broken, but hard to regain when interrupted.
Present this time as a fun art experience. If an anxious child senses that you are trying to detect what’s on their mind, they may try to create what they think you want to see. You won’t gain the information you are seeking.
Most importantly, have no expectations and offer minimal advice and assistance. The outcome is in the expression of feelings, not the completed project.
It’s great to ask questions and start a helpful, positive conversation when the child has opened that door with their creation. However, it’s best to save the questions and comments until the work is virtually completed. This way, you won’t break the creative flow or change the direction of the project.
Unlike mathematical problems and spelling, there is no right or wrong way to do art. You’d be surprised what constitutes good art in some people’s minds. Schools, following the criteria they must, will offer invaluable skills to young artists. However, they are set inside a very rigid framework – also referred to as the curriculum. When helping anxious child express their fears and concerns, the only framework should be the child’s imagination.
MORE HELP FOR AN ANXIOUS CHILD
If time, space, and lack of materials are an issue, enrol your child in a friendly art and crafts course. To use art as therapy, small or private classes work best.
Wacky Workshops offers private (and group) classes in the Lower Blue Mountains. You can learn more at The Wacky Workshops Page.
For more tips on using creativity to help your kids grow into healthy adults, read This is Why We Need Creativity Schools for Kids, Why Kids need (and love) to Create, and 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Art With Children.
Wishing you a gleeful week, Tamuria.