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  • Writer's pictureKim Gibson, MS, ATR, LPCC

Using Art Therapy to Explore Family Roles & Dynamics

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

How can art therapy increase one's awareness and understanding of family dynamics? Here's an example of a few art therapy activities that can help increase insight.

In addition to my private practice, I also work part time at a local hospital's IOP (intensive outpatient program). This program helps adults with chronic severe mental illnesses manage their symptoms and stay stable. At IOP, we often work on coping tools, stress management & communication tools. Lately, I have been using art therapy techniques to help my adult clients gain a better understanding of their families. Our families are our first relationships and often have a huge impact on us both as children and as grown adults. In our group sessions, we have been exploring family trees, messages that have been passed down verbally and non verbally, strengths and challenges and family roles...all by creating artwork and then processing the artwork together.

In our first session, with families as theme, each group member was asked to create a family tree. Preprinted family tree templates were offered but most group members choose to create their own family tree using various art supplies, including collage materials, markers and color pencils. Creating one's own tree allowed greater expression & allowed for detailed information to be shared. After the initial tree artwork was created, I encouraged group members to add in additional information. Lines, shapes, colors and words were used to describe the relationships among family members. Did family members have healthy boundaries? Are people on speaking terms? Who grew up in a home filled with conflict? Did you enjoy being in your home when you were young? What about now? All of these things were shown through art.

It is powerful, for both client and therapist, to see one's family dynamics laid out in picture form. In many ways, a picture provides so much more detail, all at once, compared to words. This is one of of the many benefits of art therapy. As group members shared, the discussion became focused on how our family is our first introduction to relationships. Discussion focused on exploring what impact did your family have on you as a child? And now, as an adult?

For our second group session on family dynamics, an art directive was used to help clients recognize patterns. To start off, this therapist provided examples of patterns that may be at play in one's family. Examples of patterns that are passed down from generation to generation can include substance abuse, physical abuse, parenting styles, values or expectations- all of these can be passed from generation to generation, verbally and/or nonverbally. There are so many possibilities. Group members were then asked to identify and create an illustration of a family pattern that they recognized in their family. For some, looking at patterns and identifying them was a completely new way of being asked about one's family. Some members choose to continue working with their family tree drawing and some started a new drawing. After patterns were identified, group members discussed how the pattern has impacted them. Are they sticking to the family script? Or are they making active changes in their own life & choosing to do things differently?

In our third session, we focused on strengths. Group members were asked to identify and draw a strength found in one's family. If a group member couldn't identify a single strength, we explored that feeling with compassion. What is that like and how does that feel? Also, how does it feel to have survive a family with very limited strengths and to now be engaged in therapy with the end goal of making changes and doing things differently?Group members also explored what are their own strengths.

Throughout these sessions, the clients have all been active, engaged and have expressed how exploring their own family is helping them gain awareness, insight and in some cases, shift their own thinking and behaviors. Future topics will include exploring family roles and also looking at whether one came from a open or closed family system. We will also do some work around family roles & boundaries, all through art therapy methods and directives. Similar work can be done in traditional talk therapy; however, there is something powerful about putting one's thoughts and feelings down on paper and looking at all of the info at once. Although these art therapy directives were done in a group setting, these are the type of directives that could just as easily be done in individual therapy.The act of creating and processing the artwork encourages one to own the material and to actively reflect on the information which can lead to increase awareness and change. If you are interested in using art therapy to explore your own family dynamics, please reach out. I am happy to help. Thanks for reading & please feel free to share. Thanks! or

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