• Lynn Cukaj

Helping Professionals: Effective techniques for working with children, adolescents, and adults

By Lynn Cukaj, ATR-BC www.CreativeExpressionsConsulting.com

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers, and Adults


How can Helping Professionals improve their work with children, adolescents, and families? For the last two decades, I have been working with children and adolescents as an art therapist and educator. In the past I worked with children in residential treatment facilities and inpatient settings. Currently, my work is community and school based. I am engaged in continuing education to further my abilities and learn new approaches to be effective when working with children, adolescents, and families.


Through my experience, I have found that non-threatening techniques when working with children and adolescents are essential to establishing a positive relationship which will lead to psychological healing and growth for the individual. When working with adults, radical acceptance, reflecting, validating, and clarification are all effective therapeutic techniques that have resulted in beneficial outcomes. Helping Professionals can learn from the following techniques and approaches when working with children, adolescents and/or adults that may result in more receptive interventions.


Working with Parents/Caregivers


When working with challenging parents or caregivers, I have found the technique of radical acceptance to be very effective. Reflecting and validating feelings is also very helpful. Most often I find that parents who are angry or frustrated feel unheard by the professionals (teachers/therapists) in their life. Therefore, when establishing rapport with parents/caregivers I often listen more in the beginning with an empathic and nonjudgmental point of view.


Therapeutic Technique: Reflecting, Validating, and Clarification


An example of how you can help parents when they are feeling angry would be to engage in reflection of feelings and ask for clarification by asking the following questions: What do you mean by this? What are we talking about? This approach helps to reduce the intensity of emotions, refocus the discussion, and maintain the balance.

By using the techniques of reflecting, validating, and asking for clarification, it reduces overly focusing on the specifics of problems and attempts to look for a solution.

Reflecting and validating can help calm individuals to engage in enactment, which is the act of talking in a direct and meaningful way by discussing one’s feelings. The helping professional can also engage in reflecting attachment to understand the meaning of the underlying negative patterns of interaction between individuals. This approach is helpful because particularly in family situations, one person may be more prone to criticize/attack and another person is more apt to withdraw or flee the conflict. This pattern of behavior can only eventually have negative consequences.


Working with Children/Adolescents


Children and adolescents are straightforward and appreciate when adults do not treat them as if they do not know why certain questions are being asked. This is why it is important to be open, honest, forthcoming, and straightforward.


Therapeutic Technique: A therapist interprets a child/adolescent’s answers and then repeats their thoughts back to them. This continues the conversation in such a way that the child/adolescent can expand on their thoughts. The ability to reframe and validate what a child/adolescent is saying can help them open up and build a rapport with the Helping Professional. I believe the key is to allow children/adolescents time to talk about their thoughts and offer periodic reflections, validation, clarification, and interpretation as needed.


When non-judgmental, empathy, person-centered approaches are implemented, children/adolescents are more open to interventions.

Working with Families


When there is an established rapport, a Helping Professional would be more able to engage in a direct manner when working with family members. Helping Professionals need to remember that solutions are more powerful, meaningful, and will work better if the solution is created by the individuals. Asking questions such as “are you being honest with yourself?” is one way to help an individual to be self-reflective. The use of mindfulness and here and now techniques can also be beneficial for Helping Professionals in order to facilitate effective change when working with families/children/adolescents.


Helping Professionals would need to balance empathic listening with all members of the family as well as engage in reframing the problems around the rational needs of the family members to work towards better connection. Most often, conflict and intense emotions are created when individuals do not feel heard or validated. Helping Professionals can model the behavior of listening in a non-judgmental manner which can help family members learn to incorporate these techniques into their everyday lives.


Direct and honest questions are important when individuals need to hear a definite decision about a particular situation. Limit Setting is essential for individuals to feel comfortable and prevent their heart rate from getting too high which would diminish reasoning and logic. Summarizing what everyone contributed or is working on is important to highlight because it can allow for reflection for the family members as to what transpired during the session. Summarizing could be a segue to introducing specific homework for the family and progress on treatment goals. Overall, the foundation to a positive rapport continues to be empathy, nonjudgmental, compassion, reflection, and validation of feelings.


The Application of Art Therapy


An example of creative therapy approaches that can be used by helping professionals would be play therapy techniques which can be very helpful and interesting. As an art therapist, over the years I have used variations of many play therapy techniques. One example is the directive of the power animal technique which is very beneficial because children are often more comfortable speaking about difficult things through metaphors.


Art Therapy Directive for Children: Superpower Animal

(Ideal for children ages 5-8)


Ask the child choose an animal. Then ask the following questions:

What superpower would you give it?

What problem can your superpower animal solve?

Have the child create an image or draw a picture to illustrate.

Hold a discussion: If the child had that superpower what problem could they solve?

Have the child refer to their drawings and how they relate to their animal/superpower. The key sometimes is knowing your population and how to eak certain approaches so that it can be effective in your work.


Currently, I have created an after-school program with children to work on social and communication skill building. This program is now in its fourth year with on average 8-10 children ages 5-10. We use books with an art directive to help engage children in a dialogue about how to depict feelings, talk about those feelings, and how to express feelings in a healthy way to enable positive social and communication skills. For example, we read The Way I feel by Janan Cain (2000) which illustrates children experiencing a variety of emotions including frustration, shyness, jealousy, and pride. This book can help children learn about the common language and experiences that each emotion creates, which can lead to a dialogue about feelings.


Art Therapy Directive for Children: Feelings Cube

(Ideal for children ages 5-10)


Read the book The Way I feel by Janan Cain and then create a feelings cube.

Each side of the cube is a different feeling depicted as the child sees it/feels it. The feeling word is written and then either an abstract or representational drawing is created. Once the cube is taped together into its 3-dimensional form, a feelings game is created. The cube is rolled and whatever feeling is face side up, each child/family member can share a time when they felt this way and why and how they handled the emotion.


In addition to drawing about feelings, mood collages are also effective to help a child process feelings and emotions expressed in a story.


For more therapeutic activities for children/adolescents/families and resources for helping professionals, explore Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.


Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here: www.CreativeExpressionsConsulting.com