How Art Supports Good Mental Health in Kids and Teens

May is National Mental Health Awareness month. At Sparketh, we believe that each person should look after his or her mental and emotional health, and that art can be a powerful tool for this kind of self care.

Learning how to take care of your mind and emotions is something that should start early in life. From childhood, you begin to create mental health habits (both good and bad) which have to do with how you process life events.  We all know that growing up can be difficult in the best of circumstances. And confusing or traumatic events present kids and teens with challenges that they probably don’t know how to communicate about, or cope with. Therefore, it’s so important to give kids as many tools as we can to help them develop and establish good mental health habits from a young age. One activity that can help anyone nurture positive emotional and mental habits -but especially kids and teens- is regularly creating art.

Creating art on a regular basis can help young people process, understand, and communicate complicated thoughts and emotions.  Today, I want to talk about just a few of the ways that art supports good mental health in kids and teens.  Some of these may be familiar, but others will probably surprise you.

1. Art Provides a Constructive Outlet For Negative Emotions.

When you are stressed, angry or anxious, it can often feel like you are imploding, like all those negative feelings are collapsing inward. This tends to be the case for many people, but especially for kids or teens who have not learned how to process or express their feelings verbally. Often, young people who are experiencing negative emotions may tend to either “shut down” or “act out” because they don’t really know how to handle those imploding feelings.  This is one reason that being creative can be such a fantastic alternative way for kids to cope with negative feelings.

Creating is basically the opposite of imploding. When you create, you are bringing something inside of you outward, in a visible way. You are constructing something new – outside of yourself – instead of internally self-destructing. Art can be a really valuable constructive outlet for negative emotions because it challenges the artist to bring those feelings outward and create something with them.

2. Art Encourages Self-Expression and Regulation.

In addition to being a constructive outlet for confusing feelings, art can also give kids or teens an opportunity to figure out what they’re feeling or thinking and regulate their responses. Like taking a deep breath, the meditative nature of creating art gives opportunities to reflect on what’s going on inside.  When kids and teens use art as an outlet for complicated feelings, they may often find that the process of creating helps them take a break and possibly be more objective about their thoughts and feelings.

Additionally, it may be easier for kids and teens to draw or paint what they feel, instead of figuring out how to put it into words. Being able to rely on a tool like art to process what they are feeling can be a really valuable mental health tool – and a foundational part of emotional development –  for kids and teens.

3. Art Allows Kids to Communicate in a More Comfortable Way.

Art doesn’t just make it easier for us to talk to ourselves about difficult thoughts and feelings; it makes it easier to talk to other people about those things, too.

Art has always been a valuable tool when it comes to communication. This isn’t just true for visual art, either–it’s true for pretty much all art forms. For centuries, people have been utilizing visual art, performing arts and creative writing (like stories, poetry and song lyrics) to say things that were difficult to express (or possibly difficult for others to hear) more directly.

Art’s ability to communicate difficult things in a more comfortable way is one of the reasons why art therapy is so commonly utilized by therapists who work with kids and teens.  Sometimes art is simply a more comfortable way for kids or teens to communicate, and learning how to communicate is a very important component of everyone’s mental health toolbox.

4. Art Helps Kids Learn About Different Perspectives. 

Learning how to see things from different perspectives (and sometimes reframing our own) can be incredibly valuable when it comes to understanding how we think and what we feel. Furthermore, it can be an important part of maintaining positive relationships with others (which is also important for mental health)! Regularly creating art is a great practice in “shifting perspective,” and getting comfortable with the practice of looking at familiar things in a different way.

When you are focused on creating art, and especially on drawing something detailed, you just start looking at things differently. Going into “art mode” can shift the way you that you view, and think about things,  for a little while. Art classes can add even more value to this perspective-shift by teaching kids about art history. Some classes (like this track on Sparketh) offer kids practice trying out styles from different art movements, giving them even more insight into different worldviews and historical perspectives. Whether it’s by challenging kids to try a different art style or simply to pay more attention to the details, art can provide plenty of powerful hands-on lessons in shifting perspective.

5. Art Can Help Nurture Confidence and Identity. 

Everyone deserves the freedom to make choices and be creative. However, kids and teens simply don’t have as many opportunities to make independent decisions. When kids create art, they get to experience the satisfaction of making whatever choices they want (in a safe context), and developing something entirely original as a result.

There is an immense freedom and sense of fulfillment that comes from creating art. As kids and teens practice art regularly, they also begin to discover what choices work well for them – and which ones don’t- which can help them start to discover more about their unique art style. For many artistic kids and teens, this can be a really important part of establishing confidence and an independent sense of identity.

By fostering creative thinking skills and providing a valuable sense of accomplishment, art helps kids and teens discover more about who they are, and feel confident in that sense of identity. This taps into what is probably one of the most difficult things about growing up–figuring out who we are and feeling good about it!

6. Art helps develop cognitive superpowers.

For all ages, art has also been shown to have many cognitive benefits such as: increased focus, mental flexibility, memory, and enhanced critical-thinking skills. Because art is a complex cognitive activity that involves non-stop decision making, research indicates that creating art actually rewires your brain (check out this study from Dartmouth College for more details).

Essentially, the decisions you make when regularly creating art create extra connections between the brain’s hemispheres. This is thought to create enhanced psychological resilience and improved memory. One physician, Dr. Arnold Bresky, used art therapy with patient’s with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and cited a 70% success rate in memory improvement!

There is still a lot to discover about why art seems to give our brains superpowers, but the point it: it does. This is something that kids, teens, adults (and older adults) can and should consider when thinking about self-care and good mental health.

 

There are so many reasons why art is a valuable tool when it comes to taking care of our mental health. For kids and teens who are establishing patterns for coping with complex thoughts and emotions, regularly creating art may be one of the most important habits they can cultivate! To find out more about getting your child or teen signed up for professional online art classes, click here.