A few weeks ago, we had to say goodbye to our dog, Andre. He was almost 14 years old and I got him when he was only 6 months old, so to say that it was hard is an understatement. I knew that my boys were sad, but didn’t really know how to talk to them about it. We have talked about our loved ones who are in heaven before, but they all passed away before either of my kids were born. Before now, they hadn’t actually experienced losing anyone and Andre is the only pet we’ve had.
So I decided it would be a great time to do some art therapy. My mom is a retired elementary art teacher and although I’m not as talented as her, I do have a love for art. I believe that when we don’t have the words to talk about how we’re feeling, we can use art to express ourselves and uncover emotions that we didn’t even know existed. Art is especially useful for helping children express themselves as they often don’t have the language capacity to talk about how they’re feeling.
There is an activity that I used often in my counseling practice called Color Your Heart. It’s super simple and does not require any artistic talent. What I love about this activity is it not only helps you to name your emotions, which is a great tool to help kids develop empathy and increase their emotional awareness, but it also helps you express how you’re feeling at any given moment. It is a great conversation starter if you ever need a way to help your child open up about a difficult topic or issue they are facing.
To get started I asked my boys if they wanted to do an activity with me. Sometimes they are really excited about doing crafty activities and sometimes it’s a struggle to get them onboard so I had to tread lightly. Luckily they were interested and it didn’t take much convincing.
Next, I got out a few sheets of blank paper and some crayons. On each sheet of paper I drew a large heart and a few small boxes to the side. I started with my youngest, because I knew that he was likely to copy whatever his brother said and I wanted to get genuine answers from him. I asked him to tell me which feelings he had in his heart. Then I told him to color in the box with the color that he thought went with that feeling.
I let him know that he could choose any color he wanted for each feeling. First he said happy and excited. And then he said, “Is it ok if I put one that’s not nice?” I told him that we could write down any feelings that he was having and it didn’t matter what kind they were. So then he said worried, mad, and sad. It was important for him to get permission to express even negative feelings as this helps normalize those emotions that people are often afraid to share.
Once he was done listing the feelings in his heart, I asked him to color in his heart with the colors that showed how he was feeling. For example, since he chose green for excited he would color in a little bit of green if he was feeling a little bit excited and a lot of green if he was feeling really excited. Then as he was coloring he started to tell me about why he chose the feelings that he did.
I also had my older son do the same thing. He had an easier time sharing why he chose the feelings that he put in his heart, but this is to be expected as his capacity for expressing his emotions is further developed than his brother who is almost 3 years younger than him.
I’m really glad that I did this activity with my boys, because they both ended up telling me unprompted that they put sad in their heart because they were sad about our dog dying. We didn’t really dig deeper into those feelings at that moment, but it provided them an opportunity to get the feelings out that they were keeping bottled up. They also began to ask questions later that day about death and dying, so I think this activity opened the door for them to talk about it more.
As a bonus I learned about the other feelings they were having and they both shared about experiences they had at school that day that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.
Adults can do this activity too. Just because we grow up and learn how to express our feelings better than kids can, doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Having another outlet can be a really powerful thing, so I encourage you to try art therapy too!