- The pandemic has created unique challenges for children and adolescents, increasing their risk for mental health concerns.
- Encouraging children to express themselves through art, music, writing and other activities can help.
- Self-expression is vital to a child’s development and can improve their self-esteem and build confidence.
[5 MIN READ]
Every parent knows how tough this year has been on children and adolescents. Social distancing, remote learning and other challenges have taken their toll, putting kids at higher-than-usual risk for stress, loneliness, depression and anxiety. As the pandemic wears on, what can parents do to ease its effects on their kids?
The solution may be as close as the pasta in your kitchen pantry or the box of crayons in your hall closet. “Self-expression is an aspect of mental health that we often overlook, but it’s crucial in helping people process their emotions,” says Helen Hansen, PsyD, MA, a clinical psychologist at Swedish. “When kids are engaged in a creative activity, they are able to indirectly express feelings that are under the surface, like worry, fear and anger. This can be therapeutic in times of stress and help them feel happier, more confident and relaxed.”
In “normal” times, children had plenty of opportunities for self-expression, whether they were fingerpainting in art class, playing on a sports team or simply hanging out with friends. The pandemic has put many of these activities on hold.
In “normal” times, children had plenty of opportunities for self-expression, whether they were fingerpainting in art class, playing on a sports team or simply hanging out with friends. The pandemic has put many of these activities on hold, while also increasing stressors at home. “COVID-19 has created uncertainty about the future and many families are struggling because of job loss, the demands of homeschooling, social isolation and other COVID-related restrictions,” Hansen says. “When parents are stressed and worried, kids pick up on that and it adds to their sense of anxiety.”
Self-expression is not about performing. It’s about doing activities that make you feel good.
The theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week — “Express Yourself” — is especially timely. In honor of this week, which was celebrated worldwide in early February, we’ve compiled a list of creative activities that can help your child share their feelings, thoughts and ideas. “Self-expression is not about performing,” says Hansen. “It’s about doing activities that make you feel good, show who you are and how you see the world. It’s something we should all be doing—not just when we are young, but throughout our lives.”
Emphasize the arts
The arts are probably the most obvious form of creative self-expression. Here are a few ways to encourage your kids to try different art forms and explore their favorite artistic mediums.
- Bring out the art supplies and display your child’s masterpieces in an at-home art show for the family, complete with refreshments.
- Encourage your kids to enter a national writing contest for prizes or the chance to publish their own story.
- Send your kids outside with a smartphone or camera and a photography challenge. For example, tell them to take 10 pictures of green items or snap pics of five different kinds of insects. Alphabet photography – taking pictures of objects resembling letters of the alphabet – is also fun and challenging.
- Find a dance challenge on YouTube to get your kids moving. Type in “dance challenges for kids” in the search field to keep your options family friendly. You’ll find a variety of challenges from many sources, including Disney, public health departments and gym teachers.
Think of artistic self-expression as a ‘recess’ activity to give kids a break between online lessons or to help them recharge over the weekend.
“Children are just as prone to Zoom fatigue as the rest of us, and a long day of virtual instruction can sap their energy,” Hansen says. “Think of artistic self-expression as a ‘recess’ activity to give them a break between online lessons or to help them recharge over the weekend.”
Support style decisions
The clothing you wear and the way you accessorize say a lot about who you are. In the words of a famous American fashion designer, “What’s my style is not your style, and I don’t see how you can define it. It’s something that expresses who you are in your own way.”
When you give children the freedom to dress the way they want, you give them the freedom to be themselves.
When you give children the freedom to dress the way they want, you give them the freedom to be themselves. So, if your daughter wants to wear a feather boa to the grocery store or your son wants to sport the same comfy Seahawks hoodie three days in a row—let them. It’s one more way to help kids feel confident and original wherever they go.
Self-expression in a socially distanced world
For kids of all ages who are stuck at home due to social distancing (or quarantine) restrictions, it’s still important to maintain a connection to their friends and family members. Another positive form of “virtual self-expression” is engaging in activities on FaceTime or video conferencing platforms. “Kids can FaceTime each other and cook a meal or do a craft, or they can get on Zoom and screen-share a tutorial video and learn a new skill,” Hansen says.
Be a good role model
Self-expression isn’t just for kids—adults need to do it for their well-being, too! If you enjoy trying a new recipe, invite your child to join you. If you like painting old furniture, include your kids in the project by having them sand it down or apply a primer coat. Maybe you love to sing, dance or do spoken word—why not put on a family talent show and share it with a receptive audience via Zoom?
Self-expression isn’t just for kids—adults need to do it for their well-being, too!
Creative self-expression can help support a child’s emotional development and improve their ability to communicate and manage their feelings. But sometimes, the best way for kids to express themselves is in a conversation with a trusted adult. It’s not always easy for kids to talk about their feelings. You can set a good example by sharing your emotions and explaining why you feel sad, mad or glad. Here are some conversation starters to get kids talking.
Looking for additional ideas? Check out these resources:
- 10 activities to encourage self-expression in pre-teens
- Creative expression and movement
- COVID-19 Parental Resource Kit. Free from the Centers for Disease Control, this kit can help you ensure your children’s social, emotional and mental well-being at every stage of development.
By encouraging your kids to express themselves, you can help them build self-confidence, independence, creativity and self-advocacy.
Encouraging self-expression in your child might seem like “one more thing to do” on your endless to-do list. Once you get the hang of it, though, you might find that it comes naturally. Plus, the benefits are worth the effort. “By encouraging your kids to express themselves, you can help them build self-confidence, independence, creativity and self-advocacy,” Hansen says. “This can help them weather the pandemic and set them up for success in the years to come.”
Be on the lookout for red flags
Self-expression is essential for everyone, but it isn’t a cure for serious mental health concerns. Be on the lookout for certain behaviors that may indicate your child is experiencing (or at risk for) anxiety, depression or other issues. These include:
- Trouble getting up in the morning
- Not wanting to engage with peers and school
- A pattern of frequently seeking reassurance from others
- A change in energy level
- Loss of interest in activities or sports they used to enjoy
If you notice any of these red flags over some time, you may want to seek help. A good place to start is your child’s pediatrician or mental health provider at your child’s school.
Find a doctor
If you need to find a doctor or pediatrician who can help your child during this time, you can use our provider directory. Swedish offers in-person and virtual visits.
Find out more about how we’re handling COVID-19.
Promoting resilience in young children: 5 tips for parents
“To do” or “to be” in the time of COVID-19
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.
About the AuthorMore Content by Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team