Many parents are wondering how the pandemic is affecting their child, especially if their child is not easily able to verbalize their feelings. Enter the crayon box.
Art can be used as a "communication bridge" for parents and children, says Nadia Paredes, a California-based registered art therapist, and may be especially useful in starting difficult conversations.
Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce asked the children in his ongoing study of immunity to “draw the earthquake,” as The Atlantic's Kate Julian noted in a recent article, and found a real mix of happy families and scenes of destroyed houses. "Those of our kids who experience the events of their lives — those both thrilling and frightful — in Technicolor brilliance and brilliant relief have much shelter to derive from the expression of fears and pain," wrote Boyce in his book The Orchid and the Dandelion, explaining that those who created the more alarming pictures seemed to process the experience more easily and fared better in the long term.
We understand how great artists work through their experiences — take Frida Kahlo's portrayal of her injuries in "The Broken Column" — but how much can we read into our children's pictures of this moment?
"As art therapists, we don't interpret artwork," explains clinical art therapist Cheryl Walpole Tiku. "Sometimes it can mean something and sometimes it's just a kid processing the fact that they love ninjas."
"Don't assume," agrees Paredes. "Ask! Because kids will have inner symbolisms that we're not aware of. Why spoil it with your projections if you can use it to get to know the other person better?" She suggests asking questions about a child's artwork in the first person. ("When I see this it makes me feel X, do you feel that way?") This not only gives a child space to discuss their art and feelings but models empathy as well.
To get a sense of how the pandemic looks to children, I asked parents to share some of the art their children have made, and was rewarded with a true gallery of artistic vision. Some kids drew their life under quarantine, one drew the vacation he cannot take, many drew scenes from nature, and one rendered the virus itself. In these pictures, relationships are a theme, along with gratitude. The goal isn't to psychoanalyze them, as Paredes notes, but to use them to open a conversation, and as a reminder to keep creating.