Here is an art therapy exercise that I learned years ago which is FABULOUS to do with your little one. It only takes 5-10 minutes, but can have a profound effect of your child feeling seen and mirrored:
- 1.Get a piece of paper and drawing stuff (markers, crayons, pastels, whatever you have).
- 2. Divide the paper in half.
- 3. Sit across from your child with half the paper in front of you and half the paper in front of them.
- 4. Mirror draw everything that they draw on their side on your side as they draw it. If you are a “good” drawer and want to level the playing field, use your nondominant hand.
Do Not comment (“I really like those scribbles/sun/house”), draw something else, judge (“This is BAD ART,” “I suck at creativity”), or interpret (“My child is a genius”).
Just mirror and be in their world for a few minutes. Don’t worry about what it means. Just be a mirror. Reflect their light back to them.
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
-Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince
“Fostering our children’s creativity, we are fostering
our children’s spirituality as well.”
-Julia Cameron, The Artist’s way for Parents
It’s been Spring break this past week. The challenge for parents everywhere: WHAT TO DO ALL WEEK with no school? One challenge for me as a parent is not planning anything. I’m a planner. I like to have things mapped out. But kids and the right brain (and kids are right-brained) do not plan. They are not operating according to the calendar, the clock, or the latest apple device on your wrist. Here is something that emerged spontaneously this week after seeing a log with a fairy door in it in our local park:
- We also made a Roly Poly house from an old honey pot filled with dirt and leaves.
- We’ve also made about 5,000 Lego “microbots.” Microbots are tiny robots made from Legos. Who knew (except for parents of Lego-fiends).
Here’s the point: If you follow the thread of your child’s creativity (which you can see by watching them play), it will lead you to magic. It will lead to that place where your hearts are connected. As the Child Psychologist Gordon Neufeld (co-author of Hold On to Your Kids, 2006) talks about, kids don’t run away from home. Kids run toward home. Home is their heart. If you don’t stay connected with your child’s heart, they will go elsewhere (drugs, eating disorders, their electronic devices) to find it.
But what if playing with your child bores you to tears? Here are some thoughts:
- 1) Fully engage in play in a way that engages you as well as your child. (I was seriously into that fairy house. So much fun. I think my child might have picked up on that 🙂 ) Your child wants to connect with you. Show them it is possible to find the vein of gold in play and creativity and this gives them permission to find theirs.
- 2) Plan in lateral passes. I think that is the right metaphor? I don’t watch football, but apparently, there is a way to pass the ball sideways in which you hand it to a team-mate? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is get support and “hand off” kid playing and creating to other caregivers, whoever they may be (your souse, your mommy friends, your children’s grandparents, your nanny…). No-one can play for 8 hours (except kids – let them. This is how their brains develop). I know you need to do the dishwasher, the laundry, go to work, oh, and by the way, take a break. Patty Wipfler, the fabulous director of hand-in-hand parenting, recommends 10 minutes of special time per day with your lttle one. Anyone can do it for ten minutes. Then you can lateral pass.
- 3) Do your own creative practice. Do it regularly so you can stay connected with your own emotions and creativity. I’m not talking about “being an artist.” I’m talking about writing in a journal for 5-10 minutes a day, or collage-ing, or dancing, or going to a yoga class, or meditating, even if it is only for 5 minutes.
“Someone once asked Somerset Maughham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles
If you need to get up before everyone else, do that. If you need to hire a babysitter, do it. If you need to tell your co-parent: “I need 10 minutes before dinner (or after the child/ren are down in bed) every night,” DO IT. This is self-care for mamas, which is usually the first thing to go down the toilet. Get your self-care back to the top of the list. And practice it every day. If you are a planner, like me, go ahead and schedule it 🙂 Your emotions will have an outlet and your dreams will (re)emerge to you. You may feel happier, less bored, or not quite as angry. If so, everyone will benefit.
Are you a salsa dancer? Free form? Do you watch from the side and “don’t do dancing”? All family systems have a dance and all family members play a role. There is nothing wrong with this, unless you find yourself square dancing when you prefer salsa or if you are being called to lead a partner dance with your parent and you are 5-years-old.
My preschooler recently was at the “small manipulatives” table at preschool and made this:
He called it “Trapped faces.” Though I am 95% sure this was not his intent or interpretation, it did remind me of what can happen in family systems when individual members carry certain emotions, roles, or characteristics for the family. When everyone is not allowed to have all aspects of their human experience, certain aspects of being human can become trapped in individuals. Some of these may include being: the responsible-one, the one-who-is-depressed, the angry-raging-one, the one-who-takes-care-of-everyone–else, the-one-who-is-creative, or the one-who-achieves or-looks-good-for-the-family.
Below is a list of family roles that children often adopt (based on the work of clinicians Virginia Satir, Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider) summarized beautifully by Laura Doughty, LMHC:[i]
The hero is the responsible, accomplished one. She gets good grades in school, is goal oriented and self-disciplined. Externally, she appears successful and together; internally, however, she bears the burden of making the family look good. She holds the belief that if she is perfect enough, the family problems will go away or be solved.
The People Pleaser
The people pleaser tries to ease and prevent any trouble in the family. She is caring, compassionate and sensitive. She also denies her own needs, and, as a result is anxious and hypervigilant.
The scapegoat is the family member who is blamed for the trouble in the family. She acts out her anger at any family dysfunction and rebels by drawing negative attention to herself. While she is more in touch with her feelings than the other roles and is often creative, in school she gets poor grades and is often in trouble.
The Mascot is the class clown with the uncanny ability to relieve stress and pain for others. But there’s something missing that he won’t find until he looks beneath the humor façade and faces his own pain.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is quiet, withdrawn, lonely and depressed. She doesn’t draw attention to herself because she doesn’t want to be a burden. But what she wants most is to be seen and loved, and to be healthy, she must allow herself to be visible.
Many family systems “roles” also include the Alcoholic/Addict and the Caretaker/Codependent. The Codependent often tries to prevent the alcoholic from experiencing consequences of their behavior and cares for others at the expense of themselves.
In my clinical practice, I often see aspects of all of these family roles and “trapped faces” in adults. Many recovering anorexics identify with the hero child or the people pleaser, many bulimics or alcoholics can see the mascot or the scapegoat in themselves. Adult children of alcoholics may see the lost child in themselves. In the process of recovering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, codependence, or alcoholism, there needs to be room to include allowing ALL aspects of yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to act it out all of these roles. If you’ve never expressed anger, it doesn’t mean you need to start raging. However, it does mean that you allow yourself to own parts of yourself that may not have been able to develop in the “trapped-ness” of your family system.
If you were the scapegoat as a child, you can now see, embrace and practice as an adult that you have hero responsible, leadership qualities as well. You have skills that are valuable and you are not the problem. If you played the role of the hero as a child, you can consider getting a B+ or even failing a class as an adult, just to practice imperfection and seeing the world doesn’t fall apart if you don’t get an A. It means you allow yourself to have aspects of being angry, sad, happy, carefree, irresponsible, responsible, pleasing, rebellious, and creative.
The Past and the Present
My clients often ask me: “But what if my mother/father/family member boss/husband doesn’t change? How can I?” The answer is that YOU can embrace all of your human experience, whether or not your mother/father/other family member does or does not. That can be challenging and difficult, especially if they want to trap you into staying in the role that is most comfortable for them to be playing within the family system. As a child, you didn’t have much of a choice. Your survival depended on fitting into your family system to have your needs get met. As an adult you have other choices. That is where recovery is simple but not easy. Emotionally, it feels like you don’t have choices and you need to continue being the Hero/Scapegoat/People Pleaser/Mascot/Lost Child. Time does not exist in the emotional world, so your inner child will feel as if it needs to keep playing that role.
That is where you can bring your newly growing conscious adult self in and practice differently. You may need to risk shaking up the family system in practicing a new dance. If your family system is used to a precise salsa or ballet dance and you start practicing a chaotic free form dance, it may not be welcomed. Nobody in your family knows the steps to that dance. Do not be surprised if you encounter resistance.
The Gift of Resistance
I recently heard a Zen teaching about a master and a bird. The master was holding the bird on his finger and the bird was learning how to fly. If the master dropped his finger down quickly, the bird would fall, and need to be caught. If the master held his finger still, the bird could practice jumping off his finger and flapping its wings in order to develop strength. This allowed the bird to fly.
Externalizing Parts of Yourself to get free of them
One way to release feeling trapped/stuck in playing only one role regardless of whether members of your family system change is to externalize them through art, writing, or drama and see what wisdom they have to share. These parts of yourself are often “protecting” vulnerabilities that were too scary to be seen as a child but can now offer wisdom as an adult. They also hold strengths that can offer you help in your life currently. The “Lost Child” part of myself is the one that makes art and studied to become an expressive arts therapist. Here are some examples of my own and some of my clients’ soulcollage® card collaged images (shared with permission). Soulcollage® is a process of making a whole deck of collaged cards, each card representing one aspect of your multifaceted Self.
I am your addiction. No matter what it is: food, pills, worry, it will never be enough. Feed me and I will want more.
Listen to me; believe me and I will take over. Listen to me, but know that there is fear underneath that needs tending, and I will get smaller and not run your life.
Body image stomach in knots.
I am one who has pain internally and believes all others can see it. The wisdom I have to offer you is that this pain is not something you can avoid or run away from. There will always be pressure. If you accept that I am here, I can offer you ways to own your power and listen to your gut.
I look like I have it, all but there is part of me lying on the couch hiding all the time. I want to go to sleep. I can’t be perfect. Not even going to try.
The wisdom I have to offer is that you can no longer overachieve. This is the ultimate experience of practicing imperfection and asking for help. Let someone see me and you may find you are not alone.
Creating Recovery Families
Last but not least, many recovering people find they need to create a “recovery family” to help them practice new roles. This can be a collection of recovering friends, your therapist/treatment team, a 12-step sponsor or other people who embrace and welcome all the parts of you and themselves. These are people who want to help you practice new roles, want to help you learn how to practice imperfection if you are recovering from perfectionism or playing the hero or practice taking leadership steps if you are more familiar with being a scapegoat or lost child.
Where in your personal relationships, work life, home life currently are you playing the same role over and over? Where can you embrace the strengths that some of your more familiar roles offer? Where can you risk bringing in another part of you?
[i] “The Effect of Family Roles on Life’s Choices” Laura Doughty, LMHC, Thriving, A Journal of Well being, Spring 2010.
Your child did NOT make that art. I’m sorry, but no preschooler much less toddler I know makes crafts with teeny tiny tiny cotton balls stuck in exactly the right places so they are recognizable “snow angels,” or perfectly cut construction paper flowers wrapped with a pipe-cleaner to make a “bouquet.” YOU made that! Admit it..
You wanted it to look good. You wanted something not to be a mess. You wanted to have a feeling of control in a haze of process-not-product day-to-day moments that feel like they never end. You just wanted one tiny space without a mess of glue, paint, glitter, poop or smeared dinner on it. I understand. I do. More on this later.* However, making that craft look good is for you, not them. Here’s what’s good for them.
3 tips for making a creative, skill building activities for your child under 5:
- Have fun getting materials around the house and just make a space for creativity: cotton balls, cereal, feathers, play dough, material for gluing, construction paper, beads (if your child is not into swallowing small objects). Choose a space that is ok to get messy.
- Be engaged with the process with your child. Parallel play beside them. They will want to engage in creative activities if you are engaging! And you making something of your own will prevent your overdeveloped-adult-Superego from directing (aka shaming) your child how to make something the “right” way.
- If you are going to comment, comment on the process “Oh you are using lots of blue there…” or “It looks like you are enjoying smooshing the yarn into the glue…” or “Ooh! Tell me about it! Is there a story?” Kids are naturally creative and right-brained. They also naturally want to connect with their caregivers don’t turn this natural desire into needing to perform or please. It’s ok if the sky is purple for them right now or the pile of yarn is “a beach.” Believe me. Those are not the kids I see later in my office when they are adults struggling with depression and anxiety. The ones I see are the ones who needed to do things “right” to please someone. In the process, they had to abandon what was most essential to their psychological and emotional development: their own creativity, identity, and self.
I actually had a really good time making an almost recognizable picture with my preschooler today. A sun, rainbow, and trees! And skill-building small manipulatives with coloring and then pasting the Cheerios! My preschooler created a “treasure chest” with a “beach towel for the boat to land.”
When I noticed part of me thinking “that doesn’t look like a beach towel” and “I could help you make that treasure chest look so much better” I paused, and said to that Pinterest-Mom-with-the-perfect-blog part of myself:
*“Thank you for sharing, but it’s not your towel and it’s not your treasure chest. Would you like to make your own? Here are some materials…”
Creativity is the original anti-depressant. -Andrew Brink, Creativity as repair: Bipolarity and Its Closure
It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self. -D. W. Winnicott
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. –Pablo Picasso
1. Art (re)connects with the authentic self.
The well-respected psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott coined the terms “True Self” and “False Self” that children develop as a result of their attachment to early caregivers.
As adults, the false self, the one that needed to be compliant as a child, can become maladaptive, stunting the power of the true self. One woman, recovering from an eating disorder that had her acting pleasing towards other people in her life while stuffing down her anger with food made the following images titled “The good girl” and “What’s underneath”:
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