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‘Express yourself’ has been the theme for Place 2 Be’s Child Mental Health Week 2021. Place 2 Be is a UK child mental health charity which supports children with counselling in schools across the country. Place 2 Be’s message is vital because self-expression is proven to support mental well-being in all of us, child and adult. Yet it’s not always that easy; if we have difficult or conflicting feelings, there’s a good chance we’ll feel nervous of what will come out. This worry can lead to us swallowing more feelings, and if feelings get stuck inside, they naturally become harder to reach.

That’s why creativity is so useful. Creativity in whatever form, be it art, creative writing, voice, movement, dance, can help us both get in touch with a range of feelings as well as hold them as a container. A creative vehicle can help give some distance, so we feel a bit safer expressing emotions.

Yet, creativity also needs careful handling because so often it gets caught up with ideas around technical, artistic ability. Questions in our heads such as can I paint, sing, write, dance, am I good enough, get in the way of the spontaneity needed to express real feelings. That’s why creating an open and nurturing space for creativity is essential. To do this, we need to help children and adults let go of judgement, of ability, of technique, of the end-result, so people can learn to relax, start to trust the process, and focus on what is going on for them in the present… It can be so helpful as an adult to model an attitude of ‘possibility’ rather than a fixed ‘right or wrong’ and replace a ‘should’ with a ‘maybe’… Such language helps build a mindset around permission and freedom to explore. 

It can equally be challenging for parents or adults who feel under pressure to give the right response to a child’s creative honest self-expression. There can be fears of not knowing what to say, with a need to get it right somehow; fix the feeling, fix the pain. However, one of the most helpful approaches, is simply to listen, stay curious and sit with what a child brings. A genuine curiosity about what a child has created can help real feelings stay on the page or in a room. Being able to sit with a variety of feelings, validate them, see them for what they are… helps us learn how to be with them. If we can teach children curiosity rather than judgement, then we help them build a much more flexible, creative mindset that can be applied to the whole of life. I’ve always liked Place2Be’s name… the focus on being, rather than doing. Once children have their feelings heard and seen, feelings often naturally transform into something else.

Here are a few starter exercises and creative ideas about how to help facilitate self-expression…

  • Invite children to connect in with their feelings, and if this feeling were a colour or colours, what might they be. Invite children to make an image of these colours. What shape, feel, consistency do they have? If these colours were to come to life, how would they move…
  • Invite children to think about an animal which best expresses how they are feeling at the moment. It might be as shy, nervous animal, but equally it might be a wild beast with some roar. They may want to move like this animal or bring it to life through mask or image-making. After spending time being with this animal, invite a child to think about what this animal might need at this moment…
  • Invite a child to find a story that they love that shows how they might be feeling at the moment. Read it together and follow your child’s interest in the story. Invite a child to make their own art in response to any part of the story.

Pia is author of the ‘Therapeutic Fairy Tales’ series, illustrated by artist Sarah Pimenta, Social Fabric, published by Routledge. Pia and Sarah wrote the ‘Storybook Manual’, a resource with practical and creative ideas on how to help children express themselves. These ideas can used in group or workshop activities.  Pia also created Sometimes I Feel, a set of emotion flashcards designed to support children in recognising a range of feelings.

You can find out more about the ‘Storybook Manual’ and ‘Therapeutic Fairy Tales’ below…

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