Children's Emergency Department is now located in Children's Tower: 1001 E. Marshall Street.

Learn more
View alerts close
Emotional health: Promote self-expression through art journaling
January 31, 2016
Emotional health: Promote self-expression through art journaling

    Scared? Stressed? Sad? Emotions can be overwhelming when faced with life-changing events like illness, death of a loved one or trauma, or even the ups and downs of daily life. For a young person, emotions are a relatively new experience and can be intense. Channeling these feelings can be tough and even viewed as something to avoid.

    Among other benefits, art journaling can help children and teens better understand their emotionsand help them de-stress (or let go of intense emotions). The act of creating has been proven to reduce physical and emotional effects of illnesses and to encourage self-expression, communication, social interactions and self-discovery. Pablo Picasso once said: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Art journaling is just one of many ways to wash off the dust of life. With an art journal, a child can create a safe place to explore their feelings without judgment, constraints or guidelines. The only limitations are a child’s imagination – and the size of the journal.

    Art journaling is similar to writing in a school journal or in a diary, except you are not limited to writing and are focusing on the physicality of creating. The pages in an art journal may be used to draw, color, collage, paste or tape items, stamp, stencil or scribble. A variety of materials may be used from crayons, colored pencils, gel pens and markers to different kinds of paper, stencils, stamps and stickers. Consider thinking outside the box and explore non-traditional materials like food labels, plant leaves and flowers, candy wrappers, and photographs, to allow a child to explore their emotions as well as use things that may be comforting to them. Keep in mind that the journal’s pages do not have to be kept rectangular in shape and the artwork may extend beyond the size of the book.

    Selecting a journal

    A traditional journal with or without rules can be used as an art journal. It can be hard bound or spiral-bound, notebook-style or art-book style. A three-ring binder or even an old used book can also be used as an art journal.

    The journal should be easy to access and have plenty of pages that lay flat. The individual pages should be matte (not glossy). The journal itself should speak to a child’s personality as it is a special place for the child to express themselves.


    Begin by personalizing the outside of the journal. A child may choose to use their favorite color, animal, photo, their name or initials or a pattern from scrapbook paper to give their journal a unique and personalized cover.

    Getting started

    Sometimes, it may be difficult to get started with creating on the pages of an art journal. To help get a child’s creative juices flowing, give the child a prompt. A prompt encourages a child by asking a question or posing a situation that gets the child thinking. It is important to allow the child to reflect on the prompt and explore the idea in their own way. Some examples of prompts for an art journal are:

    • What kind of animal would you be if you were happy?
    • Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world?
    • In the center of the page, write “I love you.” Around this, draw people/things that you love.
    • If you were Dr. Seuss, create a character to be the center of your story.
    • Starting with one corner of the page, draw a zig zag, curly, crazy line that coils all over the page without lifting your pencil. Color in the spaces that were created.
    • If anger had a face, what would it look like?

    View more examples online.


    Prompts are a good way to get started but do not force it. This is one of the few things a child has control over, so let them choose when they would like to use their journal, how they use it and how often they use it. For example, ask the child if they would like to use the journal just before bed time or after dinner daily or every other day after a certain activity. Maybe they have soccer practice on Wednesdays or ballet rehearsal on Saturdays and would like to create in their journal following these activities. Also, you can further encourage a child to use their journal by centering the activity during family time. Choose one day of the week, at a certain time, to create in your individual art journals together. With everyone sitting at the table with their art journals, place all the supplies in the center of the table and start creating a page. You may choose to give a prompt that everyone does or simply play some soft music and allow everyone to express whatever they like in their art journal. Another idea is to allow the child to come up with their own prompts. Not only will this empower them, but their ideas may surprise you. Bottom line: If the child is in control of their art journal, it will not feel like a chore or homework and they will begin to enjoy creating in their art journal without any prompts or encouragement from you.

    Lastly, do not pry. A child’s journal is a safe place where they can express themselves. Ask them if they would like to share. But if they do not want to share, respect their privacy. Art journaling should be fun, explorative and stress free. Simply put, there are no rights or wrongs in art journaling.

    Unicia Buster, Art Specialist, VCU Health, Department of Cultural Programs’ Arts in Healthcare 

    Ms. Buster provides arts and crafts projects, including art journaling, to patients in various units throughout the hospital in order to relieve stress and anxiety through self-expression, and to provide a diversionary activity.

    Safety tip: Always supervise children closely when they are working with paint, glue, scissors and other craft supplies.

    Subscribe to our blog

    Sign Up