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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

How Art Therapy Helps Us Get to the "Why"

By Lynn Cukaj, ATR-BC

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers and Adults

Why do we engage in certain behaviors?

As parents, we are often perplexed by the decisions our children make. We ask, “why did you do that?” and the response we often get is, “I don't know.” This answer has become socially acceptable and oftentimes we do not push for clarification in hopes to avoid a heated argument. Perhaps they are afraid to tell the truth, or maybe they truly do not know why they did what they did. As an Art Therapist and educator, it is my goal to help my patients and students understand the “why”.

Recently, a 9-year-old boy joined my group and declared, “I am going to hate this group.” That statement was followed by loud and belligerent behavior. Instead of reprimanding his behavior and validating his feelings, I reflected his concerns back to him. “Why do you think this group has nothing to offer you?” He yelled back, “I never said that!” I then calmly reminded him of what he said when he first joined the group. He responded with, “Oh, because I have no friends here.” At that moment, other members of the group perked up. “Give it a try and you will like it,” replied one member, and then offered a seat at their table. He ended up having a great experience and wanted to continue with the group.

If we become aware of our statements or thoughts in the here-and-now, we can better understand our “why”, which will gives us the power to change our behavior.

For parents, it is key to have your child reflect back on what was initially said that sparked the behavior. The child is then held accountable for their actions which helps them figure out the “why”. Once we understand what our child values and prioritizes, we can help guide them in making decisions that are in their best interest.

How can we understand our motives? And how can we change our behaviors? The answer to this question is one that many theorists and psychologists have debated for centuries and continue to debate today, especially when it comes to unhealthy habits and behaviors.

Like many therapists in the field, I have developed my own theories on why people do what they do, which is based on my experience working with children, adolescents, and adults. My views may or may not resonate with others, which is why the question is still being explored today.

Why did I decide to sleep in today instead of doing my morning exercises? Many people would quickly assume that it is because I was being lazy and lacked motivation. I would disagree. My theory is that we do the things we do because it works. I slept in today because my body needed more rest and that is what worked for me. “Because it works” is neither a positive nor negative statement; it just is.

This theory combines behavioral, cognitive, and existential ideas. People choose to behave in a certain way because it is what works for them in that moment. The behavior may be negative but the working is just doing its job. Once we begin to understand the working part, we are better able to accept the notion that we can also allow other behaviors to simply….work.

At any moment in time, we act in accordance with our current values or priorities. In the case of the 9 year-old student who exclaimed that he was going to hate being in the new group, he may have acted in that way to protect himself from the fear of not making friends. His value and priority was to protect his ego and that is what worked for him in that moment. We did not know why he behaved in the way he did until we asked. It is key to remember that our behavior happens in the here-and-now and we engage in behavior based on values and priorities.

If we change our “why” to have a more positive and goal-oriented outcome, then we begin to live a life of purpose. But first, we have to understand our "why" and only then we will have the power to change our behaviors and actions.

Gaining an understanding of what we value and how we prioritize our values will help us be more deliberate in our behaviors. The following Art Therapy technique is a simple daily check-in to understand our thoughts and identify our "why". This activity can be particularly beneficial on days when you are not focused and feeling more frustrated, impulsive, or emotional. It incorporates kinetics to help the mind focus on the here-and-now.

A Simple Daily Check-in Art Therapy Activity:


  • Copy/drawing paper or a page in your journal

  • Drawing utensils: colored pencils, oil pastels, markers, and/or crayons


  1. Choose a color that you find calming.

  2. Put your drawing utensil on the paper and begin to draw a line. Continue to draw without picking your utensil up from the paper and try and fill the page.

  3. Once you have completed the line (which may look like a scribble - remember this is Art Therapy, not art class), write down one word that comes to mind.

This word may be connected to your emotions, feelings, or anxieties and by identifying it, we can better understand our behaviors and gain the power to change our actions.

Variation: Draw a line and then put multiple words or phrases that are going through your mind as you drew the line. In the example below, the line is organically shaped, which shows the ebb and flow of daily life.

Parents working with Children/Adolescence:

When working with children/adolescents, allow them to freely draw and attach whatever word comes to mind. Do not react to the drawing in a negative, judgmental, or worried manner. The mere fact that they are engaging in this activity is a strong and positive coping skill. Coping skills need to be taught and modeled to our children. Teaching these non-verbal skills can be very helpful when they cannot find the words to describe how they are feeling. The act of drawing, observing, and sharing provides children and adolescence with support and guidance.


This daily check-in activity can be used throughout the day or in the morning then again at night. It can be helpful to do this in a journal and date the drawings which will allow for reflection on your personal journey. Art Therapy helps in developing a deeper sense of introspection and insight, which is the cornerstone of personal growth. Understanding our behaviors begins by identifying the "why" which gives us a deeper understanding of our values and priorities. We can decide that our behaviors no longer work, or serve us, and therefore take actions to change our course. Understanding that our feelings can change throughout the day and being able to identify them as they present themselves is an important skill to master. Being able to identify the different aspects of our behavior and our "why" can help us cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.


For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here:

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