January 29, 2017

Adult coloring books have been a craze for a while now, but what’s the real deal when it comes to their therapuetic value?  For those of you who have not noticed the coloring books that have taken over grocery store check outs, craft store displays, and department store aisles, adult coloring books are not that different from children’s coloring books. They are just harder.  The pages are more detailed and the spaces are smaller so it takes what feels like an eternity to finish one page.


Adult coloring books can be colored with pencils or markers, but rarely are people using actual crayons (although, there really are no rules, here). The books usually have different themes (paisley, animal, nature, ocean, flowers, etc) and generally cost anywhere from $5-15.  You literally can find them everywhere and the list on Amazon is pages long.

When finished, you might end up with something like this? (No client artwork shared, just mine!)


What Is The Point of Adult Coloring Books?

People cite various reasons for choosing to spend their free time coloring, but most often, I hear people report that the choose this activity for:

  • Stress Relief
  • Creative Release (especially for those who feel “unartistic”)
  • Boredom Buster
  • Anxiety Reducer
  • Improve Focus and Concentration

For less than $20, you literally have an activity that is not going to hurt anyone, that is at least mildly entertaining and seems to have some stress relieving benefits.

Can Adult Coloring Books Be Used For Kids?

YES!  Especially middle school age and up.  Younger kids can use them-but they are NOT going to be able to stay within the intricate lines and details.  I have allowed younger kids to color these pages.  They actually find a way to make sense of the larger details and just scribble over the smaller details. However, they typically enjoy a more simplistic design.

Is Coloring Therapuetic?

There is some debate here.  I don’t believe that coloring books replace traditional therapy in any way, shape or form.  However, I do believe that they are a positive coping skill that helps older kids and adults manage the stress in their lives in a very helpful way.  So, in that sense, they are a good resource.

I use them in my practice to give people something to do while they are talking.  Having a mild distraction (especially if it is a joint activity) helps kids who are anxious about therapy relax.  When people are relaxed, they are more willing to talk about things that are problematic.  They seem to help hyperactive kids slow down and focus. And, when people are anxious or stressed, if you give them something to do with their hands…it tells the brain to relax!

Coloring Becomes An Assessment Tool

As with many activities, the process of coloring becomes part of an assessment tool for me to use.  For example, during this activity, people reveal a lot about themselves:

  • Does the child want the therapist to choose a page or are they able to decide for themselves?
  • If a child “messes up” do they continue or do they quit/choose another page?
  • Is it important to the child that the therapist “likes” their picture?
  • How much does the child stick to “traditional” colors for common items versus doing things that are more unexpected?
  • What does the child do with the page when they are finished (give it away, put it on their wall, leave it with me)?
  • Does the child stick with the intricate design or color more broadly?

The process of coloring teaches me about a child’s level of independence, frustration tolerance, self-esteem, and coping skills.  This is just one of many tools to learn about what the child is like in a real and natural way.

Lessons From The Playroom:

From A Kid That Gives Up Too Easily

One child would start a page and after just a few strokes, would switch to a different page. This happened four or five times before I asked, “Is there a reason that you keep changing pages?” The child responded…”I keep messing up.”

My original thought was that this child was highly impulsive and couldn’t make a decision and stick to it. In fact, he was highly self-critical and his “mistakes” were tiny (I mean, tiny) areas where he went outside the lines.  Remember this is very intricate work and an elementary school aged child.

I showed him some of my pages that were finished.  We were able to find LOTS of areas that I went over the lines.  (Sometimes, it’s the marker tip!)  Anyway, we could look at the bigger picture and see that the overall result was still beautiful.

We set a new rule that he could only choose ONE page during each visit.  If he wanted to quit-no problem.  But no switching.  He started to focus more on the process and less on the individual mistakes. He was able to see that he could “fix” errors and keep going.

That, my friends, is therapy!

From A Teen That Thinks She Is Worthless

Another teen spent weeks working on an intricate mandala (circular design).  While working, she would talk about traumatic events that happened in her life and the struggles she had with relationships.  In fact, if she started talking before she started coloring, I would often hear, “Can we color while we talk?”

After weeks and weeks of working on this design, it was finished.  And, let me tell you, it was BEAUTIFUL.  She was so proud of herself.

For this child, success was not something that she had really felt before. She struggled in school, she had difficult relationships with everyone.  She was (in her mind) a failure.  Finishing this mandala and having it so amazingly beautiful gave her a little boost of confidence. She had a victory!

Now, this wasn’t life altering.  After all, it is just a coloring page.  But in a sense, it was life altering.  Once you get your first taste of accomplishment, it can become addicting.  She was learning important skills like persistence, perseverance, creativity, and dedication. And, she started doing better in school.

That my friends, is therapuetic!

It All Goes Back To The Relationship

Would these children have gotten the same result if they were coloring by themselves in their rooms? I don’t think so. The first child would have continued to color a tenth of each page in the entire book.  The second would have probably never even picked up the book at all.

The space created by a therapist and the relationship that is formed during the activity is where the real therapy takes place.  The ability to see and accept a child and allow them to develop into a better version of themselves at their own pace…that’s the value of a trained clinician.

Could this be accomplished without the use of coloring books?  For sure!  There are lots of ways to form a relationship with a child.  There is no “special talent” needed during this activity. Being present and working alongside your child, allowing time for talking and time for silence, and encouraging without directing the result is all that is needed.

Have you found adult coloring books to be therapuetic? I find it to be a good tool for stress relief.  Let me know your thoughts and do you prefer markers or pencils?


Why a white daisy?

Apparently, when people  are asked to draw a flower, the first one that comes to mind for a majority of people is the daisy shape.   This single flower (just the flower part without the stem or any leaves and on a solid black background) was show to study participants after being shown a high-arousal negative image. Examples of high-arousal negative images include awful things like violence, injuries and car crashes.  Two trials were conducted:  in the first subjects were shown a high arousal image and then either a) the flower image b) a mosaic of fragments of the flower image or c) a visual fixation point.  In the second trial, the high arousal image was followed by either a) the flower image, b) a chair (deemed a neutral image) or c) a blue sky with clouds (deemed a positive non-floral image).   Systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were taken throughout the experiments.  

As expected, mean blood pressure was lower when participants viewed the flower versus the fixation point or the mosaic flower,  but what was unexpected is that the flower image actually reduced mean blood pressure to a level lower than the baseline.  Both the flower image and the blue sky had a similar positive impact in changing mood from negative to positive (with the blue sky having the most overall impact).  However, only the flower (not the sky) caused a reduction in mean blood pressure.  It was determined that viewing a simple flower image could in fact change a negative mood into a more positive one and also decrease blood pressure. 

The power of the single flower image was then studied in regards to salivary cortisol levels.  During this study, the high-arousal images were once again paired with the flower image, the flower fragment mosaic or the fixation point.  Once again, only the flower image was shown to significantly decrease stress during the recovery phase. One final examination looked at fMRI images of the brain during these conditions.  Through this imagery it was discovered that the flower image was effective in decreasing the amygdala-hippocampus activation that occurred after viewing the high arousal images. Researchers speculated that the flower image was a distraction tool that was helped prevent the recall of the stressful images.  

The brief viewing of this single flower image was shown to be effective at reducing negative emotions and created better functioning of both the cardiovascular and endocrine systems! Having such a simple tool available to help reduce stress and regulate unpleasant emotions and is one possible tool for interrupting ruminating thoughts or unpleasant flashbacks.  

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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