Teaching children self-regulation through art therapy

By Dr. Huma Durrani

Self-regulation is the capacity to manage emotional highs and lows caused by internal and/or external stimuli that may be sensory or psychological in nature. It is essential for the development of adequate social skills, effective learning at school, controlling impulses, managing behaviors and achieving goals.

Typically children learn to self-regulate in infancy through the attuned responses of the caregiver. However, some children may have trouble self-regulating due to developmental issues, attachment problems and/or distressful circumstances that can hamper impulse control, judgement and reflection. 

 The good news is that self-regulation can be taught by supporting the child through:

(a)  expression and communication

(b)  reflection and goal setting

(c)  strategy and resolution

(d)  validation and co-regulation with the therapist

 Art therapy can address all of the above in a fun and safe way. The vignette below is an illustration of (a) expression and communication while facilitating self-regulation in Alan (pseudonym) through the use of art materials. 



Alan came into the session feeling anxious and fidgety. As soon as he sat at the drawing table, he picked up a pencil, his favorite medium, and began to draw skyscrapers as was his routine. He spun a story around his image as he drew it. Pencil is easy to control and its marks can be erased, hence, as an art material it is less threatening than for example paint which is fluid and harder to control. The deep pressure of the pencil and its willingness to obey Alan’s commands seemed to calm him down. Ten minutes into the drawing Alan appeared to get hyper-aroused and his body language became animated. Perhaps it was the turn that his story had taken or something else around him that triggered the change of mood. Alan’s excitability had the potential of spiralling into dysregulation as had been the case in previous sessions, therefore I decided to intervene. I drew his attention to clay which is earthy and malleable and can be kneaded or pounded to ground and contain emotional discharge. Engaging with clay helped Alan channelise his energy into the material until a sense of calm over took him. When I sensed that Alan had settled emotionally, I directed him back to his skyscrapers so that he  could complete his story.  By using art materials judiciously, I was able to support Alan’s artistic expression as well as practice self-regulation with him by managing his arousal levels. 

This brief anecdote provides a glimpse into how the inherent qualities of art materials are used within an art therapy session to aid self-regulation. Art therapists are trained to work with a large variety of materials to induce or subdue psycho-emotional states. 

When words are not enough; where language has no access to emotions; when verbal expression feels threatening and unsafe, art therapy is the way to go.