Art Therapy: An Outside the Box Approach to ADHD

Parents of children who have an ADHD diagnosis often go to great lengths to support their child’s special needs. Behavior modifications, endless adjustments to diet and schedule, tutoring, sports, meetings with teachers, and medications create a short list. However, this does not come anywhere close to painting an adequate picture. Exhaustion, meltdowns, and desperation become underlying motivations to solve the puzzle that has become their child. When they have exhausted their toolboxes, they often reach outside the box, relieved when they find out there is another therapy they have not yet tried: art therapy.

Art Therapy A Perfect Fit for ADHD

Children with ADHD often seek stimulation and novelty, making the high sensory exposure of art therapy a natural fit. Through the use of paint, clay, shaving cream, sand, and more, a variety of sensations can be explored through touch and sight. Pairing these with scents, music, and movement are engaging for the child, but promote more than just fun. These activities have a profound effect on brain development and self-esteem.

Common areas addressed in art therapy treatment of ADHD include:

  • Increased Attention
  • Emotional Regulation/Self-control
  • Planning, Organizing, and Completion of Tasks
  • Self-esteem

Increased Attention

Some forms of ADHD require medication in order to experience relief. However, art therapy is a treatment that can also have the effect of increasing a child’s ability to pay attention. As mentioned, art materials are sensuous by nature and are attractive to children who have ADHD. An art therapist working one on one can offer consistent and immediate feedback that helps keep a child on task. The art therapist will offer art experiences using art mediums less likely to create overwhelm. He or she will also structure the project or environment to support successful outcomes. Once the child learns that he or she can be successful, an intrinsic motivation can develop. This internal desire to continue doing something enjoyable is what will keep the child returning to the task at hand even when he or she becomes distracted. Over time, the ability to focus can naturally increase.

Emotional Regulation

The amygdala is the area of the brain wired for emotional regulation. This is often an area of underdevelopment in children with ADHD. You may recognize this as frequent meltdowns that disrupt even activities usually enjoyed by your child. Or you may notice your child has more difficulty managing conflict with peers than other children his or her age. ADHD by nature disrupts the learning process. This impacts the completion of tasks, which in turn prevents being able to learn from them. Additionally, children with ADHD are impulsive. A natural reaction for parents and educators is to limit the child’s interaction with messy things. Being that sensory input is directly related to a child’s ability to learn to regulate emotions, lack of exposure to sensory elements can inhibit key development. An art therapist can be masterful at creating structured freedom for sensory exploration.

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Planning, Organization, & Completing Tasks

Planning, organizing, and completing tasks, also known as executive functioning, are all difficult for children with ADHD. An art therapist can facilitate learning opportunities using art materials while providing emotional support and encouragement along the way. Often, mistakes are made. These are great opportunities for children to understand cause and effect as well as increase problem-solving capabilities. An art therapist who has developed rapport with a child can help him or her learn to see the positives in these challenges, develop flexible thinking, and gain confidence necessary for future growth.


Think for a moment about the satisfaction that you feel when crossing things off of a To-Do list. Take a quick inventory on the times you have felt proud upon the successful completion of a task. Now think for a moment how you might feel about yourself had you never had these experiences. It is rare for a child with ADHD to feel successful, proud, or to feel a sense of closure that comes with completing one task before moving on to the next. More often, these children experience serial incompletions and failures. This greatly impacts self-esteem. When working with an art therapist, over time a child begins to acquire a collection of successes in the artwork he or she creates. These serve as powerful visual reminders that can help override feelings of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt that plague individuals with ADHD.

The Role of the Art Therapist

While the art therapist puts a lot of careful thought and planning into each session to ensure client success, the most healing thing offered to the client is not a paintbrush. Clients with an ADHD diagnosis who visit an art therapist often have wracked up a personal inventory of failures outweighing successes. Quite frequently impulse control issues have caused them to become wary of authority figures. Children who have spent many afternoons in the principal’s office or received poor grades may first assume the art therapist will see only what is wrong. However, through unconditional positive regard art therapists can earn their trust. Kids with ADHD are often some of the funniest and most creative children.  However, they often do not believe they have good qualities. An art therapist who can offer acceptance, models how it is done until the child can learn to accept him or herself.


Children with ADHD are typically sensory seekers who have difficulty with completing tasks. This disrupts learning, which in turn effects emotional regulation as well as executive functioning. As a result, they experience frequent failures and an overall negative sense of self. Art therapy can successfully address these issues by providing novelty and sensory experiences that are fun and engaging. Working with a skilled therapist brings the soothing benefit of unconditional positive regard. This has the effect of relaxing defense mechanisms and can help the child recognize his or her strengths. It is much easier to develop a weak muscle when you can use the stronger ones to support it. Much the same, once a child recognizes his or her strengths, he or she will feel more confident meeting challenges.

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Melissa Ayotte

Melissa Ayotte

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