Build Social and Emotional Regulation Skills Through Art

Do you want to build social and emotional regulation skills or reduce stress? Grab some paper and colorful pencils or markers.

Drawing, coloring, painting, and other forms of art can have therapeutic effects for children, teens, and adults who have ADHD. Engaging in art therapy in a professional setting or creating art at home can have beneficial effects. Making art is something everyone can do, regardless of skill level or age, and it is an inexpensive activity all family members can enjoy.

What is art therapy?

Formal art therapy is done with the assistance of a mental health practitioner who is a certified art therapist. They are skilled in helping individuals to process their emotions, grief, and trauma through different creative processes, such as drawing or painting. Art therapy can benefit children with behavioral problems and learning disabilities. The creative process can support children, teens, and adults who have a hard time finding words for their feelings and give them an outlet to express their emotions in a healthy way.

It’s common for teens to struggle with finding healthy ways to express how they feel.

“Adolescents with ADHD exhibit intense displays of negative and positive emotions, stronger reactions to frustration or stress, and more rapid and drastic changes between emotions,” says Rosanna Breaux, PhD, LCP, is an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Parents can encourage their teens to draw or even color in a favorite coloring book as one way to process intense emotions, she says. To do this, you can help them find things to draw that interest them or color images that resonate with them. As an example, if your child likes dogs, you might consider visiting a local animal shelter or using a picture of a dog to guide them in their drawing.

Creating art can also help with other ADHD symptoms, says Kristin Wilcox, PhD, author of Andrew’s Awesome Adventures with His ADHD Brain.

“Art therapy allows those with ADHD to express their creativity while promoting problem-solving skills, increasing attention span, and boosting working memory,” she says. Dr. Wilcox’s son found that manipulating clay to make pottery had a calming effect and helped him feel more relaxed.

The act of creating something—whether it is a drawing, a painting, or making a piece of pottery—can result in a feeling of accomplishment and improved self-confidence. One study found that making art helped adults lower the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their body. Feelings of relaxation, intense focus, and calm are common reactions for both children and adults.

An adult, posting on social media, describes how art has helped her regulate her emotions throughout her life. She shares that she has ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder, and a tic disorder.

“I paint because it’s like meditation for me. I have been painting since I was a kid as a way to calm myself and focus,” she says.

Exploring different types of art

There are many affordable art kits to meet one’s skill level. These kits can involve more than drawing or coloring; for example, there are kits for diamond painting, which involves placing plastic diamonds or beads onto a pre-printed adhesive canvas. Adult coloring books became popular in recent years, and you can use many kinds of colorful gel pens or markers to complete a design.

If you are more skilled, you can create your own drawings or use watercolors to capture a scene in nature or create a portrait of your pet. If you’re new to drawing or painting, there are numerous online step-by-step tutorials to help you begin or give you ideas about what to draw or paint. Abstract drawing or colorful doodling can also help you express emotions or simply let your mind rest.

Try combining the benefits of exercise and art by going outdoors to visit a park or take a stroll on a nature trail to get inspired. Kathy Kuhl, a parent coach, recommends nature journaling to help ease ADHD symptoms.

“One way to use art to help with focus is going outside in nature to observe and draw what you see,” she suggests.

The goal, she says, is not perfection but to strengthen your child’s observation skills. You can have fun with art outdoors and “encourage your kids to record whatever they find interesting in nature—an odd leaf, a bird, a rock.”

Further Reading:

Join the discussion: What times of arts or crafts do you enjoy creating?