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?


About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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