Who's the Boss? -- A Dyadic Art Therapy Intervention

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The art process can be a wonderful way to observe and intervene in parent-child dynamics in therapy.  One art therapy intervention that you can try is to have the child and parent take turns being "the boss" during art-making.  One person is in charge first and is told by the therapist that they will get to make all the decisions for the art piece.  The person in charge participates in the art-making while also telling the other person in the dyad what they should do.  The one who is not in charge is tasked with listening and doing as asked, without disagreeing or making suggestions.  After the allocated amount of time (5-10 minutes should be plenty), the roles are reversed and a new picture is created with the other person being in charge.  Generally, I allow the child to be in charge for the first round and then the parent.  After both pictures have been completed, the therapist can facilitate a discussion with child and parent.  How did they feel about being in charge?  How did they feel when they were not allowed to make any decisions?  Which role was more difficult?  What did they notice about communication patterns during the process?  When does the child have other experiences of getting to be in charge or make decisions?

If a parent cannot or will not be part of therapy, you can also try this intervention with the child and therapist dyad.  The therapist can then still talk with the child about the experience of being in control and other ways they might be in control in their life.  How does the child communicate their wishes to others (both family and friends) and who listens to them when they do?

This art therapy intervention can be beneficial in that it allows the child to have a positive, appropriate experience of having power and control.  Children are often given few opportunities to have power or make decisions, leading to opposition and defiance as the child tries to assert power and control in inappropriate ways.  It is also very beneficial whenever children have an opportunity to feel heard and enjoy the attention of their parents through enjoyable and positive activities.  This intervention also provides helpful information for the therapist as they see how the child and parent react to being in charge, how they communicate their wishes to the other, and how they listen and respond.

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit www.therapywithcarolyn.com. 

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