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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

How Art Therapy Helps Us Get to the "Why"

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

By Lynn Cukaj, ATR-BC, MHC-LP

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers and Adults

Why do we engage in certain behaviors?

Understanding the underlying motivations behind behaviors remains a mystery. As parents, we often find ourselves puzzled by the choices our children make, and when we inquire, they respond with a vague "I don't know." This seemingly acceptable reply may deter us from further exploration, as we wish to avoid confrontation. Yet, deep down, they might be hesitant to express the truth or genuinely lack awareness of their actions' root cause. As an Art Therapist and educator, my mission is to empower my patients and students to unravel the "why" behind their actions.

A recent encounter with a 9-year-old boy in my group is an example of this pursuit. Upon walking through the doors of the classroom he declared, "I am going to hate this group." He then manifested his frustration through unruly behavior. Instead of reprimanding him and dismissing his feelings, I chose to mirror his concerns. "What makes you think you won't have fun with this group?" I inquired. Then he responded with, "I never said that!" Calmly, I reminded him of his initial statement upon joining the group. It was then that he admitted, "Oh, because I have no friends here." The rest of the group witnessed this exchange and empathetically reached out, encouraging him to give it a chance, offering him a seat at their table. Miraculously, his experience transformed, and he embraced the group with enthusiasm, excited to continue.

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.

As parents, encouraging our children to reflect on what triggered their actions holds them accountable, facilitating a deeper understanding of their motivations. Armed with this knowledge, we can compassionately guide them to make choices aligned with their values and priorities, nurturing their growth and well-being. By fostering open communication and nurturing self-awareness, we pave the path for our children to embrace a more authentic and positive journey in life. The power to understand the "why" lies within us, enabling us to unlock the door to meaningful change.

Unraveling the mysteries of our motives has been an enduring question debated by theorists and psychologists for centuries, especially in the context of unhealthy habits and behaviors.

As a therapist with experience working with children, adolescents, and adults, I have formulated my own theories on why individuals behave as they do, recognizing that these views may resonate differently with each person, making the question an ongoing exploration.

Consider a simple example of why I chose to sleep in today instead of doing my morning exercises. While many might hastily assume it was due to laziness and a lack of motivation, I offer a contrasting perspective. Our actions are driven by what works for us. Today, I slept in because my body needed more rest, and that choice served its purpose for me. The phrase "because it works" holds no inherent judgment; it merely acknowledges the practicality of our actions.

This theory blends behavioral, cognitive, and existential ideas, suggesting that people behave in certain ways because those behaviors serve a function in the moment. Even if the behavior appears negative, it is simply fulfilling its purpose. Once we grasp the concept of actions serving a purpose, we can embrace the idea of allowing other behaviors to serve their purpose as well.

At any given moment, our actions align with our current values and priorities. Consider the case of the 9-year-old student who expressed dislike for the new group. His behavior may have been a defense mechanism to shield himself from the fear of not making friends. Protecting his ego was his prevailing value and priority at that moment, and thus, his behavior served that purpose. Understanding the "why" behind his actions required inquiring and probing deeper. It is vital to remember that our behavior occurs in the here-and-now and is driven by our values and priorities.

To truly change our behaviors and actions, we must first comprehend our "why." By shifting our "why" towards more positive and goal-oriented outcomes, we can lead a purposeful life.

Understanding our values and priorities allows us to consciously shape our behaviors. To aid in this endeavor, I recommend an Art Therapy technique—a simple daily check-in to explore our thoughts and identify our "why." This practice can be particularly beneficial on days when focus is lacking, and emotions may be running high. By incorporating kinetics, we engage the mind in the present moment.

In this journey of self-discovery and empowerment, understanding our motivations opens the door to transformative change. Armed with this knowledge, we can consciously align our behaviors with our values, fostering a more intentional and fulfilling existence.

Art Therapy Activity for Exploring the "Why"

At the core of this Art Therapy activity lies the quest to unravel the "why" behind our behaviors. By identifying the driving forces behind our actions, we open the door to self-awareness and self-empowerment. In doing so, we liberate ourselves to reassess whether our current behaviors still serve our best interests or if they require redirection.

Emotions are ever-changing, like the gentle waves of the ocean. By acknowledging and embracing this fluidity, we equip ourselves with the skill of recognizing and identifying our emotions as they ebb and flow throughout the day. This heightened emotional intelligence becomes a powerful tool in understanding ourselves and relating compassionately to others.


Choose a color that resonates with calmness and place your drawing utensil on the paper. With unbroken strokes, allow the lines to dance across the page, unhindered by judgment or expectation. As you complete this seemingly abstract journey, pause to jot down one word that springs to mind. This word may encapsulate your emotions, feelings, or anxieties, unveiling a deeper layer of understanding.


  • Copy/drawing paper or a page in your journal

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

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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