When I reflect on my experiences over the last 18 months of moving Art Therapy Sessions to the newly adapted online sessions, what stands out for me is how different the experience was for every young person and family that I worked with. For those families that I had already met and began working with face to face; it felt like we were embarking on a new journey together having already forged a positive connection in person.

This naturally meant adapting the way we were working together, taking notice of the new challenges that Covid-19 had brought the family and, in some cases, simply pause and take stock of what was happening. Together, we would then talk with the child/Young person and parent about what felt important to keep at the forefront of our sessions. This meant re-assessing goals that we had originally set and introducing new themes to our work together. Often with a focus around the worries and pressures that the pandemic had brought as well as how those worries were impacting on other aspects of the child’s life or way, they were managing their health condition.

For new families, I had never met in person we would enter this new way of getting to know each other, I found the most helpful approach to this was to be very transparent, neither one of us would know whether this would be a helpful way of working together so my recommendation to each child and family was we can just try and see how it works. What became apparent early on was that this way of working needed a lot more planning in terms of preparing the child and the family for the session in terms of making sure that this could be delivered safely and helpfully often needing to consider the needs of the wider family, due to the lockdown that every family was coping with.

Through the very nature of sessions being within families’ homes, the dynamic of getting to know each other felt quite different. On reflection I think that deeper relationships were forged with parents, siblings, and pets! This meant at times a more family-based approach to the sessions was beneficial. It became very apparent early on whether this would be a suitable way of working or not and this would often change throughout the duration of the work.

For many of the teenagers I was in touch with, being able to meet with me from the comfort of their own home, their ‘personal space’ was something far more comfortable for them compared with the expectation of coming to visit me in the hospital setting, which for some would bring back difficult memories of being unwell or having their treatment. Some teenagers reflected that they did not think they would have been so keen to have their sessions if this was the case. For younger children, the opportunity to share aspects of themselves, such as toys, teddies other artwork they have perhaps made, was a helpful opportunity to be able to build up a connection together in what felt a very ‘normal’, safe, and unthreatening way for a child embarking on a new therapeutic journey.

The practicalities of being able to offer children and families sessions from their home also allowed greater flexibility in the work. Previously there were set clinic dates when families would attend sessions at the hospital. Without Therapist or Parent without having to build in travel time and booking room space allowed there to be some flexibility at times to meet changing needs of family life, particularly at the time of Covid-19 when families were adjusting to new routines.

I have always been aware of the pressure of parents arranging and transporting their children to their art therapy sessions by the very nature of living in Highland this can often mean a long car journey and for parents who are jiggling childcare arrangements, work or other caring responsibilities, aside from all the other numerous medical appointments needed to be attended this can consume valuable time. For the children and young people this can also result in them having to miss a proportion of their school time which perhaps has already been impacted on by regular medical appointments or treatment plans. This new way of online working was helping to alleviate some of these additional pressures of a child or family engaging in their art therapy.

Previously, due to the large geographical area that is Highland many families who perhaps could have benefited from Art Therapy were never able to access this, as a potential round trip of 5 hours for one hours Art Therapy Session was simply not practical or sustainable. Therefore, this adapted way of working has felt such a positive opportunity to reach out to families who were simply out of reach before, it has been clear that this support has been hugely valuable and really does open positives for the future for families in more remote communities. It is also important to acknowledge that at times in those rural communities that the quality of the internet service  can be a challenge, often with  poor connection issues, so this too has been an important consideration when wondering whether working online could be beneficial.  

One of the obvious challenges for some of the online sessions has been to find the right space within the family home to work together, this has varied for each family I have worked alongside. With houses being busy due to the Covid-19 restrictions, it was often difficult for busy households to find quiet places especially when there might be several siblings in one household. This was an interesting opportunity as an Art Therapist to reflect on how I also manage new environments out with the traditional space of the clinic room in a hospital or school. On occasions in a session, I might think that the space was becoming quite noisy or there were to many distractions in the background and perhaps this was not an ‘okay’ place for the child to continue with their art therapy session. However, on the first occasion this happened, I was able to take a step back and reflect on the fact that the child was not only fully engaged in their art making and their conversation with me, seeming completely unfazed by any noise or distraction in the background. It was in fact me that was distracted! This really helped me to understand about being in the child's own environment, their world and that for many this was what was familiar and safe for them.

As an Art Therapist another benefit of developing work online has been the opportunity to be able spend more time with parents. In the setting up the sessions and the start and the end of the session. Generally, when children and families were attending appointments at the hospital, it would be one parent bringing the Child each week. However, this provided opportunities to meet both mums and dads at the beginning and end of a session. I think this provided greater sense of safety and containment for the child prior to the sessions and helped to build up stronger positive relationships with parents and at times would lead to greater flexibility in the way the sessions would be delivered. Due to the need on occasions to re address the goals of the work opportunities to look at how best to support the family often appeared to be the most helpful approach with a pause of the individual sessions could be re-started later.

Whilst for some children and families an online approach perhaps does not work for them, but for many it was refreshing to be able to explore new and creative ways to continue to support families and young people during such a time of worry and uncertainty. One of the key memories for me was when several families would speak of looking forward to their art therapy time and the structure this would give them each week as well as the opportunity to step into a creative world together with this being something that brightened their week. 😊

Nicola Kennell Art Therapist