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“How Creative Self Expression Calms My Son’s Intense ADHD Symptoms.”

“We started a collaborative artistic project where he had all the control. I would lie down on a huge piece of paper, and have my son pour paint over me. We would use my iPhone and Apple Watch to record the experience and take photos of the result. The benefits were threefold – I could spend more time with him, allow him much-needed independence, and subtly teach him about healthy self expression.”

Paint pots on a black background in a messy tray

How do you think your child would respond if you asked them to pour a gallon of paint over you? I bet they’d react exactly how my child did: with a mischievous smile.

My youngest son loved the idea of getting to do something with his mother that would allow him to be a bit creative, a bit messy, and a bit destructive. But unknown to him, I had a motive other than fun: to help him deal with some of his issues stemming from ADHD. This creative endeavor, I felt, could teach him healthy coping mechanisms for managing emotional reactions he didn’t completely understand — and often couldn’t properly control.

Self Expression to Manage Strong Feelings

As a career artist, I’m no stranger to using creative self expression as a healthy outlet for my own feelings. Funneling my negative emotions into some sort of creative work has been my best and most helpful strategy for managing my mental health. I’ve also spent years teaching others how to find their artistic voice and use it to express their innermost feelings, especially when words are too difficult to find.

Creating art in any medium is a wonderful way to manage emotions. It acts as a release valve that allows you to externalize all of your feelings and move on, knowing that those emotions will live on forever on a canvas or in a song, rather than inside your mind.

After my son’s ADHD diagnosis, I knew that helping him learn this crucial coping mechanism was the best way to start him down a path toward successfully managing some life-long issues with emotional regulation.

[Read: Stifled Creativity and Its Damaging Impact on the ADHD Brain]

But it wasn’t going to be easy. His symptoms are vastly different from what I thought I knew about ADHD and how it manifests in children.

Intense ADHD Symptoms

My eldest son was also diagnosed with ADHD some time ago. His symptoms, contrary to his younger brother’s, fit the stereotypical ADHD mold. That’s why I was taken aback when a teacher suggested that I get my little one evaluated for ADHD. He didn’t have a problem getting his work done once he started, something that constantly plagued his older brother. Instead, he struggled with initiation — actually getting himself to sit down and start his work. But my husband and I eventually learned that task avoidance is a symptom of ADHD. It turned out that it was anxiety, not defiance, that prevented him from getting started.

Now a mother to two boys with very different manifestations of ADHD, I felt compelled to find the best solutions to help both of them based on their individual needs. After lots of research and many conversions with psychologists, we decided to focus on creative self expression to manage my youngest son’s symptoms.

This strategy seemed like a natural choice. My youngest has always been creative. He loves music, theater, as well as art, and has grown up watching my own artistic expression with much interest. I’ve often included him in my projects, something I never did with his older brother.

[Read: ADHD in Children: Symptoms, Evaluations & Treatments]

He is also a highly sensitive empath. He feels deeply and has an active imagination to go with it. His beautifully deep and emotionally expressive brain can take him down a rabbit hole, but his hyper focus can keep him there, causing him to struggle to find his way back to a calm and rational state. When he faces criticism — whether it’s a perceived attack or a demand to accept accountability — rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) can kick in, ramping up his anxiety and frustration. This makes it very difficult to reason with him, as his thinking becomes very narrow as he desperately tries to defend himself from feeling “bad.”

With the support of a trained professional, we have plans in place for when he begins to spiral. Step One is always to make him aware of what’s happening and of our intent to help. Step Two is to redirect his thoughts through creative expression. The goal is for him to independently use this coping plan down the line.

Artistic Expression to Manage Symptoms

We started a collaborative artistic project where he had all the control. I would lie down on a huge piece of paper, and have my son pour paint over me. We would use my iPhone and Apple Watch to record the experience and take photos of the result. The benefits were threefold – I could spend more time with him, allow him much-needed independence, and subtly teach him about healthy self expression.

The task seemed simple, but it was difficult in action. The tray was sometimes too heavy for him, and the paint was not always the right consistency. But he had so much fun doing it, and he learned to manage the frustration that comes with carrying out a project. The more he practiced pouring paint over me, the better he got at controlling the tray and the paint. He learned how to create interesting splatter patterns, and he enjoyed trying new techniques. When I asked him if his cousins could join in and try, he was happy to invite them. I loved how he taught them what to do, and then guided them as they did it.

The project has since become a ritual – pulling out the huge roll of paper, choosing the colors and pouring them in the tray, discussing together the goal, while realizing the reality might be entirely different – and agreeing that’s OK.

I want my son to grow up experiencing the power of creating and knowing that his mood can drastically change by pulling out paints and getting messy. Any artistic expression will do, really.

The lessons he learned throughout our project have paid real dividends. He has been exploring artistic expression on his own now, taking an interest in playing the piano and practicing his drawing skills.

We still have rough days, but he has moved forward in leaps and bounds. With small redirects, he is often able to choose better outlets to manage his frustrations, and I am thrilled to see the progress he has made.

Self Expression and Creativity: Next Steps


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Updated on May 13, 2021

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