Colours Of My Heart
This blog post is written by Katherine Gentle, who is a Child Psychologist working with Anglicare in a new service, Cassie’s Nest, a trauma informed counselling service on the south coast of NSW. Thanks to Katherine for generously sharing an activity she regularly uses in practice and
related stories with ACF’s wider online community.
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart” Winnie the Pooh
In my work with children and young people affected by trauma, I have always been interested in the use of art as a medium to support children to identify and express their feelings. Children and young people affected by trauma often experience their emotions as overwhelming, powerful and unpredictable and when their expression of emotion has been met with anger, aggression, rejection or indifference, they can experience shame and learn to hide their emotions as a way of surviving.
As a newly graduated psychologist back in 1988, I remember searching for tools that would help me to encourage the children I worked with to express their feelings. These children had experienced the trauma of being sexually abused and often struggled to find their voice. I ended up creating a series of feeling faces out of cardboard cutouts that had so much use they fell apart after a year. It was the beginning of my ongoing search for creative ways to help children feel safe and comfortable with the expression and comprehension of, and connection, with their feelings.
During my search, I came across the ‘feelings in my Heart’ activity, which was developed by Jessica Spence, a social worker in the United States. As I began to use this activity regularly, I came to realise what a simple, elegant and effective tool it can be. This has been adapted into the ‘Colours of my Heart’ activity.
The ‘Colours of my Heart’ activity is regulatory in and of itself as a child settles and engages their right hemisphere to create their hearts. It reinforces the connection between the left and right hemispheres as the child makes meaning of their identified feelings through creating a congruent narrative and orienting the feelings to time and place. It provides a calming context as we move into discussing situations that may be potentially dysregulating. It is also co-regulatory as the child and I sit side by side gently colouring and chatting.
I often introduce the activity early in our sessions to provide the child or young person a way to articulate their feelings and to provide a means of assessing the child’s congruence between feelings, experiences, and expression.
I worked with one child who drew her whole heart in the colour yellow representing “happy” with one blue spot in the tip of the heart to represent “sad”. She then went on to talk about many very sad and frightening experiences that she had experienced. The happy heart, she explained, was how she felt now away from the hurt she had experienced.
In my practice, I have found nearly all children and young people engage easily with the simplicity of the concept of a heart full of feelings. Although we have developed a template of a heart for children and young people to use, in my practice I have either given the child the agency of drawing their own heart or I have drawn the heart myself if the child expresses concern with drawing it themselves. I have used it with children as young as four and have found young people can equally enjoy the calming nature of the activity as well as the different way to explore their feelings.
I usually start with the four basic feelings of happy, sad, angry and scared and ask the child to decide what colours they will use to represent these feelings. I might ask, “How much space in your heart does each feeling take up?” Some children ask to add other feelings and sometimes I may suggest adding specific feelings I’m aware the child experiences a lot, such as “worry” or “frustration”.
The activity can open up conversations about how children and young people perceive experiences, how they make meaning of these experiences, what their bodies do when they feel the way they do and how others express their feelings. The activity can act as a springboard to use other media to further explore feelings and their expression. We may start acting these feelings out or get puppets to describe situations when they had felt angry, sad etc.
I often use this activity as a lovely segue into exploring what is happening in their brains when they feel very scared or angry or stressed. We then move onto discovering self-regulatory strategies that may well include drawing and colouring.
I might introduce a book to read about feelings, such as “In My Heart, A Book About Feelings” by Jo Witek or “My Many Coloured Days”, by Dr. Seuss, to explore further the experience and expression of feelings.
I have often revisited the ‘Colours of my Heart’ activity when a child/young person brings up situations or experiences for which they may need support to identify how they feel about what happened. On one occasion, I used the activity to help a young girl explore her feelings about her mother’s pregnancy and what that meant for her as the child not able to live with her mother.
I have also used it to review how children may feel over time about certain experiences. One child asked to draw another ‘Colours of my Heart’ after he had heard of the sudden arrest and incarceration of his father. The activity was a safe way for him to begin to make sense of the confusion of his varied feelings. It can also be used to help the child or young person to think about how they feel now and how they might want to feel in the future. This opens up hope and possibility through future-oriented conversation.
I continue to be wonderfully surprised and honoured by the reflections and descriptions children and young people are prepared to discover and share with me on a day to day basis. The colours of my heart activity may be simple but can help elicit profound and moving conversations.
“You find sometimes that a thing which seemed very thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.” Winnie the Pooh
What Feelings Are In Your Heart: An Art Therapy Exercise for Kids in SWHELPER, by Jessica Spence Published October 14, 2013.
In My Heart, A Book About Feelings, by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey. Published 2013, Abrams, NY
My Many Coloured Days, by Dr. Suess, published 1996, Alfred A Knopf, USA.