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Family art therapy



The advancement of family therapy theories in the past few decades inspired practitioners in developing family art therapy (Riley & Malchiodi, 1994). Theories that have been used as frameworks in family art therapy include but not limited to system theory, narrative approach and psychodynamic. There were also some contributions from the art therapy field, such as art-based family system assessment (Levick & Herring, 1973; Zierer, Sternberg, Finn, & Farmer, 1975), couples art therapy (Wadeson, 1976; Riley, 1991), family group art therapy (Mueller, 1968) and so on. Each borrows major family therapy theories as basis to further include artistic expressions in identifying and understanding the dynamics and communication patterns within family structures. 



Apart from some common benefits such as visual problem-solving and active engagement in treatment, there are several specific advantages in family artwork. Firstly, family art therapy provides equal opportunities for each member/generation in the family to express their feelings through creating art. This includes young children who cannot verbally express their emotions in a precise manner, acting as an effective alternative (Riley & Malchiodi, 2003). Besides, art serves as a natural approach to start conversations concerning family issues and roles. For example, therapists could initiate a discussion simply by asking participants to draw out their representation of friends and family. (Riley, 1985).


Haley (1963) stated that “metaphors are analogies through which the therapist and client can communicate in a powerful, direct, but non-threatening way. They can be visual, verbal, or both.” Metaphor is when you use something to symbolize another thing. A dark sky in a poem might be a metaphorical representation of sadness.

The best thing about metaphor is that it gives people directives implicitly. The client may not even realize the intervention when it is presented in the form of metaphors (Haley,1976). In specific, metaphors could be easily absorbed given their non-threatening nature (Haley, 1973). Therapists can use metaphors to shape specific interventions based on clients’ verbal or visual expressions.

Here is an example of a clinical application of family art therapy using the concept of metaphor by Riley and Malchiodi (2003).

A 26-year-old young woman called Ann was worried about her marriage and annoyed by her widowed mother. Therefore, she moved out of her mother’s house with her husband and settled down in a new place 30 miles away. She loved gardening and enjoyed working in her new backyard during the weekends. However, conflicts arose between Ann and Neil (her husband) as she became anxious about Neil’s surging demand for her attention and time. Besides, her mother has also begun to demand Ann to visit her more and spend the whole weekend together.

At the beginning of the treatment, Ann was asked to make sketches of her garden by imagination. Drawing after drawing, she completed this image of her yard (see figure 1). The therapist then regards this drawing as the basis for metaphor. According to Ann’s description, the lawn of her garden had grown “brown and dry”, the flowers were dying off and overshadowed by crabgrass. Although she was offered the option to leave the garden as it is now, Ann decided to remove the crabgrass from the yard after careful consideration.



figure 1. Ann’s drawing of her garden. Adapted from Riley and Malchiodi (2003)


Using drawing as a conversation-starter and via metaphors, the therapist suggested Ann to seek solutions to eradicate the “crabgrass” between her and Neil. As Ann and Neil were studying ways to restore the lawn, they have discovered a chemical that selectively kills the weed without harming the healthy grass. As both of them were working on the lawn project, Ann had an excuse to limit her visits to her mother’s place just for breakfast on Sundays. Consequently, Ann has improved her relationship with Neil and her mother. Moreover, Neil hired workers to deal with the heavy yard work, leaving them more spare time to enjoy weekends with her mother. All the family members involved were pleased. For Ann, she enjoyed the company and the support from her husband. For Neil, he was pleased to see that Ann no longer ignoring or excluding him from her “project”. For Ann’s mother, she finally held less sway from them as her need for interest has been satisfied.


The combination of art and family therapy does not only enhance the communication between clients and therapists but also provides the opportunity to discover and intervene in family-related issues through visual presentations.


Haley, J. (1963). Strategies of psychotherapy. New York: Grune & Stratton.

Haley, J. (1973). Uncommon therapy. The psychiatric techniques of Milton H. Erikson, MD. New York: Norton.

Haley, J. (1976). Problem-solving therapy. New York: Harper & Row.

Levick, M., & Herring, J. (1973). Family dynamics - As seen through art therapy. Art Psychotherapy, 1(1), 45–54.

Mueller, E. (1968). Family group art therapy: Treatment of choice for a specific case. In I. Jakab (Ed.), Psychiatry and art: Proceedings of the IV International Colloquium of Psychopathology of Expression 132–143. Basel: Karger.

Riley, S. (1985). Draw Me a Paradox? Family Art Psychotherapy Utilizing a Systemic Approach to Change. Art Therapy, 2(3), 116–124. 

Riley, S. (1991). Couples therapy/Art therapy: Strategic interventions and family of origin work. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 8(2).

Riley, S., & Malchiodi, C. A. (1994). Integrative approaches to family art therapy. Chicago: Magnolia Street. 

Riley, S., & Malchiodi, C. A. (2003). Family art therapy. Handbook of art therapy, 362, 374. 

Wadeson, H. (1976). The fluid family in multi-family art therapy. American Journal of Art Therapy, 13(4), 115–118.

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