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Using Art for Emotional Regulation

Child holding colorful crayons

 A smile spread across my face. This is going to be great, I told myself. This is going to be a mama win and Max is going to love this new tool - the same tool I have used with his older sister in the past. In my head, I pseudo-planned out my approach - one that I was sure would win the heart of my three-year-old. 

“Did you know that your breath can be a superpower and that you can use your breath when you feel angry, frustrated, or when you need a break?” I asked him.  

My son perked up at the word superpower and looked at me in a way that I knew I sort of had his attention. So I patted the ground next to me, inviting him to join. 

I sat on the floor with my legs crossed and then waited a moment while he mimicked me. 

I then put my hands on my belly. I took a big breath. “Fill up like a balloon,” I said. 

And then I let out a big, somewhat exaggerated exhale. My silliness caught his attention a little more. 

This time with my eyes closed, I began again, using my best zen master voice. “Breathe in love. Breath out the stress.” 

And just as I thought I was rocking this whole meditation moment with my son - in the midst of another inhale and exhale - I heard a noise that sure didn’t sound like waves of breath. 

I opened one eye to peek discretely at my son but, the sight it captured, caused both eyes to open wide. 

Max was no longer sitting crossed legged with me on the floor. Rather he had found a red marker and was coloring on the wall. THE WALL!

It was actually fitting that he was coloring the wall red because that’s how I now felt inside. Volcano lava red. My anger was bubbling. 

My own breath now heavying, I began to yell at my son. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE BREATHING CALMLY?!”

Alas, my beautiful teaching moment ended in a colossal collision of frustration.

The truth was, the part I felt most disappointed with, wasn’t the fact that my son swapped my breathing tool for graffiti, it was in the fact that my emotions had hijacked the moment. 

But, as they say, when one door closes, another one opens. In this case, when one teaching moment goes amiss, another one presents itself. 

So, I packed up my pride and took a deep breath. The same rhythm that I had wanted to teach my son, I instead used to recollect myself in the midst of my big emotions. 

If art is what my little dude wanted, I would shift gears. Redirect. Refocus. Recreate. 

So, we made a little road map. Each road served as a transition from unpleasant feelings, such as anger and frustration, to more pleasant ones, such as happiness. From hard feelings that we were feeling to the lighter ones that we wanted to feel. Frustration led to excitement, anger led to joy, fear led to bravery.

Child working through feelings with art

Some roads were a smooth trip from one feeling to the next. And some roads we added bridges and bumps and tunnels because, let’s face it, some feelings are just harder to navigate than others.

Child working through feelings with art

As our construction paper’s white spaces began to fill with lines and colors, I could feel a shift happening between my son and me, yet we were still struggling to land on joy. 

It was then that my son said, “Mom, I think I need to build a bridge.” And whoola, just like that, a reset. The art, the connection, the play- it all gave rise to a beautiful teaching moment for us both. 

Connection and mindful moments come in all colors. These three tips can help you create more moments of meaning and connection in your home. 

Two girls engaging in an art project

Give children autonomy over their projects.

Be the guide by the side and let your child have the stage, keeping artwork a fun tool for expression. When given the reigns, art projects become a catalyst for creativity - to discover and innovate and to help your child understand and interpret the world around them. Explore your child’s process by asking them about their creation and the decisions they made along the way, praising their effort. When you let your child take the lead, you become a guest into their world.

Use art projects to teach acceptance.

When it comes to artwork, “mistakes” can be reworked into something of beauty, much like the mistakes of life. Embrace your child as they learn the art of releasing perfect. You can encourage your child to embrace coloring out of the lines (because sometimes life is messy), to problem-solve when they want to turn their tree into a mountain, or to just be with what they have created free of judgment. Children who are allowed to experiment and make mistakes are more willing to take risks and invent new ways of thinking. This growth mindset will serve them in many facets of life.

Remember that art builds connection.

Connection to self and connection to others is fostered through creating art projects. When a child is able to follow their own instincts to self-express, confidence is bolstered. Likewise, when completed with another, it builds empathy, teamwork, and relationships. Art is a powerful way for your child to express their feelings and can also be used as a calming strategy for regulation. Research has shown that engaging in art enhances brain function and nurtures social-emotional skills. So bottom line, art is more than just fun, it is learning! 

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Generation Mindful creates tools, toys, and programs that nurture emotional intelligence through play and positive discipline. Join us and receive joy in your inbox each week.