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Art Therapy for Adolescents

Learn how and why therapists are using Art Therapy with Adolescents

art therapy for adolescents

Teenagers want to express their feelings, but their feelings and emotions often stay bottled up, brewing until an angry outburst or other unhealthy outlet for expression occurs. Most refuse to go to a "shrink" or other professionals, their opinions of such encounters shaped by negative stereotypes from movies and popular culture. (see Adolescence Developmental Psychology).

Their reluctance to talk to adults, their disdain for verbal questioning, their overall withdrawal from any adult influence, all lead to disastrous attempts at therapeutic interventions - except for one type of therapy that most professionals agree best suits this age group: art therapy.

Art therapy offers an alternative to the traditional "talking therapies." Teens welcome the chance to draw or create what they're feeling, rather than try and put emotions into words. When invited by an art therapist to create a piece of art, the therapist does not interpret, judge, or try to control the process or artwork.

The benefits of art therapy for adolescents

  • Externalization of internal stress. When a problem or negative behaviors are depicted through images, the behaviors are externalized, making the behaviors the problem – not the client.
  • Nonthreatening form of communication. Art offers teens the ability to express themselves in a safe, nonjudgmental way. It doesn’t seem like therapy to draw, paint or create sculptures.
  • Art develops individuality. Art therapists permit teens to draw or create anything they want, permitting them to produce something individual, a personal statement or their own personal mark.
  • Teens are drawn to graffiti. Making images, symbols, and graphical art such as graffiti is natural and common for many teens.
  • Creative problem-solving. Art therapy shows teens that when they use creativity to solve problems, they arrive at fresh, exciting viewpoints.
  • The power of images. Imagery produces personal metaphors, or a more intimate, honest form of communication that encompasses the entire scope of a situation or issue.

Trust building with art therapy

After creating art with an art therapist for a number of visits, the art therapist and client begin to dialogue about the art, changes in the artworks over time, and what these changes mean to the teen. Throughout the entire process, the teen stays – and feels – in control of his or her treatment. This is critical in art therapy with adolescents because, developmentally, this age group is attempting to separate from their parents, and trying to exert control over their lives – and emotions.

Common issues art therapy addresses:

The art therapist asks the teenager to share as much with the therapist about the art as the teen feels comfortable with or necessary. The therapist remains neutral, and by remaining neutral, builds even more trust with the teen.

How does it work?

The training and education of art therapists emphasizes the ability to recognize nonverbal symbols and metaphors represented in artworks, and their underlying meaning.

Art therapists are also trained in the theories and practices of psychotherapy. Conversations centered on the artwork are therapeutically based, eventually helping the teen understand their fears, anger, self-esteem issues, unhealthy perceptions, and behaviors. The therapist offers healthy alternatives to dealing with trauma, physical or mental disabilities, abusive situations, addictions, or any number of mental health issues.

Finding alternative solutions to situations or issues that appear overwhelming to adolescents is always a main goal when working with this age group. Creating art facilitates this goal while building self-esteem, and helping teens develop a healthy self-identity.

Qualifications for working with adolescents

therapy session

To work with adolescents as an art therapist, the following skills and personal qualities are important:

  • A tolerance for working on sexual issues, specifically with a teenager’s often crude representations and language.
  • The patience to work with individuals who at first are resentful and antagonistic.
  • The ability to relate to a teenager’s sense of humor.
  • Acceptance for individuals from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
  • Acceptance of the "teen" culture, which varies widely among teen groups and sub-cultures.
  • Having a recollection of the pain and confusion of adolescence.

To become an art therapist, a master’s degree is usually required, and some states also have certification requirements. If you want to become an art therapist and have a desire to work with adolescents, request degree information from schools offering programs in Art Therapy.

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