5 Ways Creative Arts Therapy Can Help A Kid With Cancer

Remember those good old days of art class? Crayons, charcoal drawings, making people out of zillions of tiny pencil-dots.

Turns out, you were getting more out of picking up the paintbrush than a break from academics.

The arts (e.g., visual art, music, dance) are not just classes or hobbies—they can have mental and emotional health benefits, too. They can be especially helpful for people who are healing from an illness, like cancer.

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Whether your child is in a formal art therapy program, or is a natural genius with construction paper and water colors, any type of art can have therapeutic value.

Here are 5 ways that creative arts can be beneficial for kids with cancer:

1. It Reduces Stress

When children have cancer, the parents often take the brunt of the stress. However, kids can get stressed too. Between missing school, not getting to play with their friends, or having fears about going to the hospital, the stress can pile up.

Unfortunately, stress is not helpful in the healing process. According to the National Cancer Institute, long-term stress can lead to a weakened immune system—which many kids with cancer already have—and make people prone to getting colds or the flu.

This is where art therapy steps in. A 2010 study from the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) found that several types of art (e.g. music, dance, visual art) can reduce stress and anxiety.

2. It Improves Mood

Kids with cancer don’t develop depression any more than their peers, but cancer can certainly cause bad moods.

Participating in art therapy may be able to combat this. A 2015 article from CNN reports that when you do something pleasurable (such as art), your brain releases the hormone dopamine, the body’s natural anti-depressant.

Children can experience this repeatedly from a single project—simply looking at their finished product, or hearing compliments on their art, can trigger another release of dopamine.

Creative arts can also boost self-esteem, says the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association. That may be just the tonic to help your child stay positive and upbeat.  

3. It Creates Opportunities For Social Interaction

Social activities are an important part of childhood. They can lower children’s feelings of isolation, and reassure them that they have a strong support system. However, kids with cancer don’t get as much social interaction as other kids their age.

Many types of art classes or therapies are offered as group programs. By getting to interact with others, kids can continue to develop social and interpersonal skills.

Also, the healing effects of art may also be amplified if it’s done with others. The Arts Education Partnership says that participation in community arts programs can improve confidence and help children believe that they are capable of accomplishing their goals—and these outcomes are especially likely to occur in group settings.

If your child can’t make it to an art class or therapy program, talk to other parents and see if you can arrange a time for your kids to come together for an informal arts and crafts group activity.

4. It Lets Kids Express Their Feelings

Cancer comes with a lot of emotions, and they’re not always easy to put into words.

Art offers a way for kids to express their feelings when they don’t have words for them, according to the study in the AJPH. They may be able to draw what it feels like to have cancer, or perform a dance that brings out their feelings.

This isn’t just helpful for them—it can be helpful for parents and the care team, too. It’s hard to figure out the best mental health treatment plan when you don’t know what kids are feeling. Their projects may be able to give you some insight.

5. It Can Improve Physical Health

Believe it or not, art can actually affect the body physically. According to a 2013 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, creative art therapies can reduce pain and fatigue.

The National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association has found that creative arts can mean the difference between pain and comfort. They activities distract people from pain and facilitate relaxation.

Art and music activities can also make sure that kids get to spend quality time at home. The 2010 AJPH article explains that the use of art and music can mean reduced hospital stays.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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