Erica CurtisBy Erica Curtis and Ping Ho
Talking is important but not always the best approach with kids. As adults, we tend to over-talk to them. Our words can be ineffective if not irritating. A well-meaning “can we talk?” can trigger defensiveness and anxiety (“uh oh, I’m in trouble”). Moreover, talking can be overwhelming, embarrassing or difficult, when kids don’t have words to communicate their experience. Words may not even be accessible because stress can interfere with the speech center of the brain. Stress can also inhibit brain functions that enable problem-solving, decision making, and focus.

Fortunately, even during times of high stress, we can open lines of communication non-verbally through art.

Here are a few art-therapy-inspired strategies you can start using today to help your kids of any age build emotional awareness, boost coping tools, and calm conflict. Whether you are artsy or not-so-artsy, these tips are for you:

• Your TODDLER is afraid of the dark – Invite your toddler to change a scary thought using her imagination. Whether monsters, a bad dream, or something else, explain that her brain is just making pictures. Ask your toddler: “What would make the picture funny? Or how else could we change the picture to make you feel better?” Invite her to imagine funny features on a scary monster (the more ridiculous the better). Or maybe she would like to imagine an army of stuffed animals protecting her. Offer suggestions while allowing your toddler to take the lead. Ask: “How does that feel now?”

• Your CHILD feels anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed – Invite your child to scribble out anxiety, stress, or overwhelmedness: “If your stress was a scribble, what would it look like?” Ask him to look at the scribble and, like finding images in the clouds, try to turn the scribble into something else by adding details or other embellishments. Remind him that, just like the scribble, unwanted feelings will come and go. Alternatively, invite your child to express his stress as an unwanted visitor in the form of an imaginary creature. Ask: “What is it saying? What does it need?”

• Your TEEN is upset and refuses to speak to you – Draw a heart, a sad face, or a confused face. Add a speech bubble or caption such as “I love you,” “What happened?” or “I’m sorry.” Choose something that fits the situation. Add a circle and an empty speech bubble to prompt a response. Slip it under the door to your teen.

Erica Curtis is a board-certified art therapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and internationally cited expert on parenting, relationships, and mental health, specializing in creative and cutting-edge approaches to psychotherapy and teaching. She is also a mother of three. Find her online at and on Instagram @EricaKCurtis

Ping Ho is founder and director of UCLArts and Healing, which offers training and community education in the use of creative expression for self-discovery, connection, and empowerment. She has master’s degrees in counseling psychology and public health, and an extensive background in the performing arts. She has raised two kids and has two young grandchildren. Learn more at and on Instagram @uclartsandhealing.

Find many more tips like these in the 2019 National Parenting Products Award-winning book: The Innovative Parent: Raising Connected, Happy, Successful Kids through Art