How The Arts Can Improve Your Child’s Emotional Health

Tired from a night of intense practice, I sat on the dance floor with my friends and we laughed as we unwound the ribbons that curled around our small ankles.  As we pulled our feet from our broken pointe shoes and rolled back the thin layer of pink tights, our feet reflected our exhaustion.  Swollen, slightly bloodied and aching, we hardly noticed the pain as we chattered in unison.  Minutes before we were pushing our bodies to exceed their limits as we flew across the dance studio, whipping our legs into the air with precise instruction from the counts of the classical music and the snap of our ballet teacher’s fingers.  1…2…3…4…, “Again, girls!” 5…6…7…8, “Again!” And so the evening would progress by the count of 8.

Ballet wrote the story of my adolescent life and I will forever be grateful.  I could tell you a hundred stories of how it saved me, pushed me and developed me as a person.  I could tell you about the lifelong friendships it gave me, the consistency and structure it offered me or the opportunity to deal with rejection and disappointment it afforded me.  I will spare you the details and simply highlight the reasons why you should encourage the arts in the life of your children.  With it, they can write their own story.

Ballet is a form of art and athletics.  It is a balance of flexibility and rigidity, discipline and expression.  And in this delicate footing, our emotional health has the potential to blossom.  The arts are a creative outlet for emotion, any kind of emotion and when you add the component of physicality, you have found the sweet spot for improving the mind.

My sweet niece. Ready for one of her first ballet classes.

Small children can begin a life of artistic expression as soon as they can move their little legs and arms.  I began my love for ballet at the age of three.  It changed my life for the better and now as a therapist looking back on it all, I know the small reasons why it carried me through my most difficult challenges as a young person.

Alice Strawn Sheridan – my ballet instructor. I feel lucky to this day that I was once her student.

Ballet is exercise.  Exercise alleviates anxiety and depression.  Ballet is intense physical movement.  It requires a feat of athleticism that those who participate in organized sports would be shocked to discover.  Studies don’t just suggest; they verify that exercise releases endorphins within five minutes, which have a cascading effect: your mood begins to improve, you feel a surge of energy and your body begins to fight inflammation. Not only this, you will feel more relaxed and in the evening this relaxation will promote healthy sleeping patterns.  Sleep is essential to sound mental health.

Photo courtesy of Middle Georgia Youth Ballet and Alice Strawn Sheridan.

Ballet is a creative expression of emotion.  The therapeutic benefits of expressing emotion go without saying.  When we express ourselves creatively, we reduce stress.  Some psychologists believe it is something similar to the act of meditating.  When we immerse ourselves in an activity we enjoy we not only lose focus on what is troubling us; we enter into a near-meditative state.  We can channel our sadness, anger, grief and joy into the movement of ballet. All the while, classical music will be the backdrop.  We know what Beethoven and Mozart can do for us, right?  The art form of the symphony at play significantly reduces stress.

Photo courtesy of Middle Georgia Youth Ballet and Alice Strawn Sheridan.

Ballet builds self-esteem and self-confidence, which improves mental health.  This statement can be true of any artistic expression but shows itself so clearly in ballet.  When a person becomes so focused at developing a skill through repetitive practice, he/she almost inevitably develops a certain level of confidence and passion.  Passion gives people purpose. People who are self-confident are more likely to have a high self-esteem and these two characteristics buffer individuals against the affects of anxiety and depression.  In one study, the National Institutes of Health discusses how “helplessness and low self-esteem explain the development and maintenance of depression.” Conversely, ballet  improves mental health through high self-esteem, self-confidence and purpose-driven activity.

Photo courtesy of Middle Georgia Youth Ballet and Alice Strawn Sheridan.

Ballet is a group effort.  You may have solo dancers but there will always be a corps.  In this corps, young people find support in their fellow dancers.  Sharing a common bond in their love for the arts, young people can build close relationships to ease them through the difficult and sometimes turbulent adolescent years.  Science has shown repeatedly that socializing is a protective factor against cognitive decline.  When we socialize we experience less anxiety, less depression, and less stress.

Children need an outlet for creative expression whether it is ballet, music, writing, painting or acting.  It is relevant.  It is necessary.  Give your children the chance to find their art.  And please know when you do, you are helping them cultivate a skill that will carry them through life.  In my case, it has helped me dance through mine.