Enabling children to express themselves has never been more important than right now during the uncertainty of a global pandemic. At a time when the pandemic is leading to disrupted schooling, reduced socialising, and increased family tensions. This article explores ways of supporting and helping young people to develop skills in self-expression.
What is Self-Expression?
We are born curious, eager to discover and explore our environment and we do this naturally through self-expression; the act of bringing something deep within us into observable form. Self-expression can take many forms from communicating verbally, art, dance, sport pursuits, how we dress or act. Consider that with every action and every choice you make, you are expressing some part of yourself.
As we get older, and with external influences and experiences, self-expression can become more difficult. The fear of judgement, rejection, ridicule, or shame means that we have trained ourselves to conform to what we believe others want us to be and in doing so, we have deprived ourselves the opportunity to show the world who we really are.
For a young person, self-expression is crucial for the development of their identity, self-confidence, and sense of belonging in the world. The ability to express themselves helps young people communicate their feelings in positive, meaningful ways. However, not all self-expression may be apparent and it is important that we look for non-verbal cues such as body language and other subtle ways in which a young person may try to communicate and express themselves.
Self-expression allows us to show others our personality and our authentic self. Whilst this vulnerability can be quite a daunting prospect for some, by contrast for others, it can be liberating and help us to grow as individuals.
Self-expression forms the building blocks of our physical, social, and emotional wellbeing, which we can harness and develop throughout our lives. What we have learned as young children helps to support us on our journey through adolescence and adulthood. It is crucial to know that it is never too late to develop and mould our own individual ways of self-expression.
So, what does this mean in action?
Some adolescents and adults may find it easier than others to express themselves. They may have had the opportunity as young children to find their individual ways of communicating themselves to the world in a safe, open, and supportive way. Self-expression can come in many forms and it’s important to find out what works for you as an individual.
For those people who may find expressing themselves more challenging, finding ‘safer’ ways of beginning self-expression may be helpful.
It could be that paper based activities such as ‘all about me’ or ‘self-expression’ worksheets, all of which give prompts on self-discovery or using structured journals. These are a good starting point as they offer space and time for private thinking. Sometimes, you start writing not knowing where your words or story will take you and that’s okay.
If being creative is something that interests you, you could think about adult colouring books or paint by numbers as a way of introducing self-expression. In fact, having a distraction can be helpful; doodle when on the phone or listen to some music whilst allowing a pencil to move freely on a blank page.
Inside/outside boxes are a useful way of developing self-awareness and help with self-expression. For this, decorate a box with images and words on the outside to represent the qualities you show to the world. Then decorate the inside of the box with images and words that represent the inner qualities that are hidden to most people. Once you are aware of what qualities you hide, you can focus on how you can begin to express them.
If music is important to you, if it relaxes you and inspires ideas, words, and images, use it as a trigger to create poetry or pictures. Find the perfect journal, a large book with plain or lined pages. This is your private space a bit like the inside/outside box. No one is there to judge you and it is not an exam.
You can also listen to some music specifically about self-expression such as Roar by Katie Perry, Born this Way by Lady Gaga or We Weren’t Born to Follow by Bon Jovi. There are also books about self-expression which you may find as a good starting point.
If you prefer physical pursuits but lack the confidence to take the next step, you can think about joining a virtual challenge. Here you meet like-minded people online but without having to meet in person as a starting point. This might prompt you to think about joining classes and clubs within your local area and taking your self-expression that one step further.
Finally, we can’t forget nurturing yourself while expressing yourself. So, if you enjoy cooking or baking, (think about starting small) use recipes as a means of self-expression, in a more contained way, until you feel more comfortable. Once you feel more at ease, the possibilities for self-expression are endless!
What have you been thinking as you’ve read these words?
Take some time to think about how you express yourself in the world:
- Do you know what you do?
- Do you do it through your work?
- Or more subtly?
We all have our own unique quirks and traits, and we all have our own preferences and style for sharing pieces of ourselves with those around us.
Initially, it may not be obvious how you express yourself, especially if this is something out of your comfort zone. For others, self-expression might be more apparent and come more easily.
It may be useful to write down some things that you are interested in; things that spark your passion or are important to you. Take time to really think about who you are and what makes you tick.
Set goals but make sure they are realistic and achievable. Make time and engage in activities that feel right for you and keep yourself open to new experiences, talents, interests, passions, and opportunities.
When you stop analysing how things may turn out, and learn to ‘go with the flow’, you will start to trust in the process and allow yourself to be you.
Remember, self-expression is a journey of discovery.
Some useful resources
99 Things That Bring Me Joy (a guided journal) by Abrams Noterie (2016) published by Abrams.
The Anti-Colouring Book by Susan Striker and Edward Kimmel (2001) published Henry Holt and Co Inc.
For lots of ideas for young people visit www.mind.org.uk/HowCanILookAfterMyWellbeing.
Virtual sports activities www.youthsporttrust.org/60-second-physical-activity-challenges some great and potty ideas to get moving. For example, Hopscotch in a Hurry Challenge, Socks in a Box, Burpees Challenge etc.
What does it mean to express yourself?
Self-expression is about finding ways to explore and express our individual personalities, our passions, the things that drive us and make us unique, whilst also connecting us to like-minded others. It is sharing our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and views of the world through our words, behaviours, and actions and engaging in activities that make us feel good.
This can be more difficult than it sounds as we are often given messages by our family and friends, our communities and through social media, about how we ‘should’ look, think, speak, and behave. This means it can be difficult to let go of expectations and express our true selves but being able to do this is very important for our wellbeing and mental health, especially when we face difficult times.
Given the experiences that we have all been through over this past year, which is likely to have brought about a multitude of feelings, it is more important than ever to find healthy and enjoyable ways to express ourselves that help to lift our mood and make us feel good.
So why is self-expression important?
In children, being able to express themselves freely and in a safe environment is very important for their development so that they may grow up trusting that they can open up to others; that their opinions, ideas, wishes and feelings are important and will be valued.
Throughout our lives, engaging in activities that we love and being heard and understood by others is very important for the development and growth of confidence and self-esteem:
- It provides enjoyable challenges and excitement, boosting feelings of achievement and self-worth, and giving us purpose and meaning.
- It helps us to connect to others and find a place of belonging by discovering that we are not alone in our thoughts and feelings and that we share interests and passions.
- It also allows us to ‘let off steam,’ to relax and de-stress and boosts ‘feel-good’ endorphins that lift our mood.
How do we express ourselves?
There are countless ways to express yourself, it’s about finding the right outlet for you that makes you feel good, allows you to get your point of view across and show your true self.
Maybe you love to be creative, to draw or paint, play music, write poetry, or have an interest in fashion, or digital media. Perhaps you feel happiest when being active, taking part in sport or outdoor activities. Perhaps cooking, baking, or gardening are more your style. Whatever your passions, making time for them in your daily life is an important part of expressing yourself.
It’s really important to remember that expressing yourself doesn’t mean that you have to be the best at something or that you have to put on a performance for others, it’s really about finding ways to show who you are, and that help you to feel good about yourself.
Tips for encouraging self-expression in children
Children express themselves all the time and not necessarily with words! It’s important to ‘listen’ to everything they’re telling you, paying attention to their behaviour, their play and creativity, even their silence, it’s all self-expression.
- Create a culture of regularly talking as a family and having conversations about feelings, good and bad.
- Be curious about your child’s emotions and help them to develop the language to describe them.
- Listening carefully helps children to feel confident in sharing their thoughts and expressing themselves. Try to minimise distractions and give your full attention when spending time together.
- Be aware of your own body language and eye contact, summarise what they’re sharing with you to show you understand and acknowledge their feelings.
- Show interest in their passions and interests and encourage them to share them with you.
- Build on existing interests, encouraging them to take part in activities that support these, and give praise for their efforts.
- Encourage trying new activities to find new and creative outlets and hobbies and to connect with others.
- Give your child the freedom to express their true self, not what is expected; allow them to make choices in their daily lives, let them go to the supermarket dressed as spiderman, or paint their bedroom that wacky colour!