Art goes far beyond words and reaches down to the deepest corners of our souls. With the phenomenal mental and physical changes teenagers go through, their souls sometimes need something other than words. During such confusing times, art therapy for teens offers them a safe medium through which to make sense of their realities.
Making art has a way of breaking down barriers and providing insights that the logical mind can’t frame into words. Moreover, such non-verbal communication can allow therapists to connect with traumatized adolescents. Words can be too terrifying but expression through art is cathartic.
It’s natural for mental health professionals to want to build their knowledge and experience of working with teenagers. When a parent or other adult family member has experienced a transformative journey, they sometimes look to recommend their daughters, nephews or other adolescents in their lives.
To build a strong practice in art therapy for teens and guide those younger clients through their emotional and psychological turmoil, mental health professionals need to work with the best tools.
Quenza isn’t just a digital platform that supports your back-office admin, including client intake and agreement forms. It’s also a tool with personalized client dashboards, a chat function, progress-tracking, client note-taking, group therapy functions and a vast library of activities.
Why not see for yourself how that library is what makes Quenza stand apart by signing up for the free, full-access, one-month $1-only trial? You’ll be making art therapy for teens online accessible, creative and adaptable.
The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as a “mental health profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship” .
In other words, art allows people to express themselves such that they can process their emotions in creative ways. As a 2021 study shows, art therapy opens up different parts of the brain to enable a new brain-body-mind experience .
Overall, this type of therapy allows clients to experience the past or the present through their senses. By not over-focusing on the mind, they increase their interoceptive awareness. The impact is that they can start reshaping their internal world while reconsolidating memories and boosting their sense of control over their actions.
Moreover, as the paper continues to describe, art therapy in teens opens up different communication pathways between a wider range of areas of the brain. This, in turn, allows for greater reflection, so easing the process of meaning-making. The result is a more integrated sense of self and greater emotional awareness .
In summary, what is art therapy? It’s an experiential communication tool that also allows clients to be attentive to their inner worlds to enable healing and growth. Such communication is actually one of the most natural and one that humans have used to express themselves since our beginning.
Whether therapists focus more on the healing aspect of the creative process or the symbolic communication that comes out of the product, depends on the therapist. Although, technically, using the product to ease out issues and conflict is art psychotherapy. As you can imagine though, there is usually an overlap between using art as therapy and art psychotherapy .
What is art therapy if not a way to allow us to understand ourselves and each other more effectively? A useful model to understand the benefits of art therapy is one developed by researchers Kagin and Lusebrink in 1978 and further enhanced by Lusebrink in the early 2000s .
Their Expressive Therapies Continuum model gives therapists a framework to find the most effective art therapy intervention. At the bottom, as shown below, therapists can introduce teens to movement or sensory experience or a combination of both.
Through movement, muscles can release their tension or, alternatively, through pottery or molding, teens can reach a state of relaxation. Most importantly, they channel their emotions through sensation and movement.
The next level, although these levels are not hierarchical and can interlink with each other, is about working with perception versus affect. In this case, art therapy for teens is about exploring emotions and how to perceive meaning through structure and form.
Finally, some teenagers might be more at the cognitive/symbolic level. In that case, as in the example in the paper, teenagers might prefer to paint or draw symbolic images to represent their lives and emotions. This can be done through self-portraits or by making masks which can evoke the shadow self, for instance. At the other end, collage is a way to enhance cognitive art expression because it involves planning and structuring of various images .
Values Vision Board
The reason the Expressive Therapies Continuum model is so powerful is because it helps us appreciate that therapists create a unique journey for each of their clients, including teens. Art therapy for teens must flex with whatever artistic form works for the teenager so that it becomes a natural form of expression and healing.
A 2020 study of art therapy for teens in schools further confirms the benefits. Even if it sometimes started out as an excuse to “play”, it seems that teens soon welcome the opportunity to share while not being judged. Furthermore, social issues and identity formation were among the key topics where teens felt the most benefit .
Other benefits are that teens gain a sense of belonging whilst also a channel to help them relax. It essentially sets them free from the pressures and rules of their environment.
The question now might be “who is art therapy good for”. As you might be able to guess, the answer is literally anyone and everyone. When it comes to art therapy for teens, all teenagers have internal conflict and issues they don’t feel they can talk to anyone about.
Of course, there are also mental issues such as PTSD, depression, ADHD, anxiety, substance-abuse, weight struggles to name the most common ones. Another huge benefit is that art therapy for teens can be applied and practiced within families. Families can either work on similar exercises to create healthier ways of communicating or they can benefit from guided visualizations .
While nothing is actually being produced in visualization, the brain’s imagery center is still being activated. Together, families can experience a “time-out” and relax through the guided recording. With time, they gain a calmer attitude towards each other.
Leaves on a Stream
In summary, is art therapy effective? Yes! Everyone can benefit from art’s healing and restorative nature.
The number of art therapy ideas for teens is only limited by your imagination. That’s why you might need inspiration from digital platforms like Quenza. As a starting point, you can explore the tips listed in these therapy ideas for teens.
Another part of Quenza is that you can build pathways, or journeys. Art therapy for teens is unique in that you often have a final product that acts as a log throughout the experience. Whether these are drawings or pieces of clay or wood, both teenagers and therapists have something to refer back to.
It’s the same with digital art therapy for teens. With Quenza, all the notes and exercise outputs are on each client’s portal.
Fierce Self-Compassion Break
As you can imagine, most people’s initial fear is that they aren’t artists. Even teens might feel self-conscious at first. That is why it’s important to tap into their natural aspect of the Expressive Therapies Continuum model that was detailed above .
In terms of techniques, the more commonly used exercises in art therapy for teens aim to remove any embarrassment. Without such barriers, the subconscious can be liberated.
It’s also worth noting that techniques within art therapy for teens can be divided into 3 categories as devised by psychologists Arthur Robbins and Linda Beth Sibley in 1976. These are “projective” to diagnose the teen, “research” to gather information and “therapeutic” to encourage communication . These categories then allow the therapist to formulate where their client is in their development and how to co-create goals to move forwards.
The following table gives some of the examples of various activities that could be applied in art therapy for teens but is by no means exhaustive :
Focus & Objectives
This open-ended kinaesthetic approach with free-flowing lines allows spontaneous images to release otherwise repressed thoughts and feelings. This exercise also often becomes the starting point from which clients believe in their ability to make images.
Therapists often start by demonstrating simple, circular arm movements where the teen is encouraged to find their rhythm. The client then draws a continuous line with a crayon, pencil, pen or other drawing tool. Therapists can add another dimension by asking them to close their eyes or to use their non-dominant hand. Another take on this method is the Squiggle Game where squiggles are used instead of lines.
A mandala is both a circle and a symbolic representation of the universe in some Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Drawing a mandala, or a circle within a circle within a circle and so on, the creator is encouraged to focus while looking within. Jung believed that the mandala was a representation of the self and our potential for change and transformation. The circular and structured format also helps ground people who feel disoriented.
Mandalas can simply be circles drawn in freehand. In art therapy for teens, therapists could ask those teens to find a compass, a plate or other circular disk as an aide.
Clay / ceramics
This versatile medium activates cognitive perception, hand/eye coordination, socialization and emotional behavior. Moreover, it can easily be reshaped over and over again according to the user’s moods and whim, giving therapists an extra layer to play with.
Working with clay and ceramics can be as simple or technical as you want. At the simple end of the scale, teens can use Play Doh or Plasticine. At the more technical end of the scale, you’ll need a pottery center where clay can be finished in a kiln.
Weaving has been used in hospitals to improve physical liabilities by strengthening muscles and improving manual dexterity, especially in World War 1. Those with mental or emotional distress benefit from the concentration required. This creates inner stability that restores inner strength.
From silk embroidery to friendship bracelets, there is a wide variety to choose from.
Woodwork or even papier mache is another medium therapists can use in art therapy for teens. In this case, the use of tools also improves dexterity while the smell activates the senses and can awaken previously hidden emotions.
One application is to make masks or puppets. These can be an interpretation of the self or the shadow, for example.
We all instinctively know that music triggers deep emotions. It brings us back to the present even if past experiences are triggered. In true Gestalt style, music encourages listeners to process past events with a present mind. Such mindfulness gives perspective, improves mood and processes emotions.
Depending on the person this can be either visual or tactile or both.
Dance / movement
Through dance, teens are encouraged to experience their bodies. It encourages them to lose inhibitions and to feel what it means to be them as emotions pass through them. The idea is that the body and mind are connected such that the subconscious can come to the forefront.
The aim is to let the person guide themselves. In Dance Movement Therapy, there is more structure than Ecstatic Dance which is more meditative. In the former, a therapist might use mirroring, attunement, or copying but with less intense movements, integrated development or authentic movement.
Lifelines & storytelling
This is both about fantasy and about understanding how environmental influences shape our beliefs. Such self-disclosure also allows teens to make sense of both positive and negative events in their lives.
Metaphors and roadmaps are combined so at one end, you could have a simple line across a page depicting someone’s life. At the other end of the range of approaches, you have a teen’s life depicted in metaphors and fairytales.
We don’t just learn our habits and behaviors from our families. Values, issues and trauma are also passed through the generations. The aim is to explore the values and biases that are reinforced within families. This can be liberating for teens as they discover that they can form their own values and beliefs
Teens can draw, paint or collage this representation. Depending on their age, the therapist will have to explain values. Alternatively, they could ask the teens to draw the various habits they see their parents and grand-parents doing that are similar.
This is now a well-known exercise to encourage creativity and awareness of self. Sometimes the exercise is done with the environment in mind such that teens can express what it means to be part of their unique social and cultural system.
Any theme can be chosen such as a specific event, a teen’s whole life or self. The opportunities are endless. Once agreed, the theme is then portrayed through a mish-mash of images either from online, cut-outs, photos or any other medium that suits.
“The Garden of Self”
The aim is to integrate strengths, shadow and potential for growth. The garden represents the self where healthy plants are the strengths, choking weeds are the issues and problems and seeds are the personal future goals.
Teens can draw, paint or collage this representation depending on what’s available. They then talk through what they’ve discovered.
In terms of techniques, you can easily find art therapy prompts online such as “draw your current emotion with your eyes closed. Another one could be “choose two different colors for each hand and then close your eyes and let the colors guide your hand over the paper”.
Naturally, the techniques used go much further than art therapy prompts. For instance, a therapist might use gestalt techniques, free association and interpretation, person-centered approach or systems theory approach, among others.
Another technique is the intermodal approach. This one moves away from talking about the finished product. Instead, it encourages clients to create another piece of art to explain the first one. For example, to play a sound to represent a particular color or shape used in a drawing.
Active Imagination started with Carl Jung and his theory of personas. The aim here is to create a personal story based on the spontaneous creation of whatever drawings, or dream-like images, come up. It’s a process of uncovering the meaning and interpretation of the images .
What Does Art Therapy for Teens Look Like at Home?
Therapy doesn’t just happen in the therapist’s room. It’s a continuous journey and the more people adopt the exercises in their home environment, the more likely the transformation they need will happen.
Moreover, art might be a new medium for some teens so it’s useful for them to get familiar with whatever they choose to work with. This is where the interplay between digital and physical comes into practice.
So, therapists can deliver their art therapy for teens online by allowing their clients to reflect on whatever product or artistic experience the teen is bringing to the session. The homework then becomes working through some of the art therapy ideas for teens, mentioned above, in their own space at home.
Parents might also wonder how to do art therapy at home. Think of it almost like an “arts and crafts” day. So, parents can spend a few hours with their children creating whatever art is on for the day to represent the self, family or environment. Therapists also find themselves becoming more experiential with their clients and will often also work through the exercises. This serves as role modeling for teens.
Strengths Spotting by Exception Finding
3 Levels of Anger
Of course, we don’t just have pencils, paints and clay at our disposal. When exploring how to do art therapy at home, we also have string, cloth, photos, puppets, music, among other creative tools.
These days there are also a multitude of kits that you can buy online to allow you to do art therapy for teens at home. You can then use the tools with the Quenza exercises adapted such that teens don’t just write, they also create.
It’s worth noting that art therapy can also be adapted for children younger than teens. A 2019 study shows that it’s effective with children as young as 5. Just like for teens, they also benefit from reduced anxiety, improved self-concept and more positive attitude to emotions and problem solving in general .
Naturally, art therapy for teens, or children, can’t always be conducted without a therapist. With more severe issues, our young clients need guidance and support from someone outside their family or school circles. Some homes and schools simply don’t provide the safe space needed for the therapeutic benefits to take place.
Make Art Therapy for Teens Part of Your Therapeutic Portfolio
So, is art therapy effective? Our ancestors knew by instinct that it is and neuroscience today proves it. We know that art opens us up to healing and more creative forms of communication that words can’t always cover.
Art therapy for teens can be even more impactful with the use of platforms such as Quenza. The pre-made activities can all be easily tweaked such that the instructions encourage clients to draw or create. It’s up to the therapist to encourage their clients to get creative with the materials they then use.
We all need to express ourselves and in times of confusion and uncertainty such as teenage years, people need expression more than ever. Without it, self-identity gets muddled and resilience never has a chance to bloom.
As a mental health professional, you can do more than just help your adult clients. You can start supporting whole families. Art therapy for teens is experiential so you’ll also learn more deeply about who you are and what you offer to this world.
Why not let the Quenza library inspire you? Check out all the exercises and think how you might apply them by signing up for the free, full-access, one-month $1-only trial. You could even awaken your own playfulness and creativity, adding a boost to your clients’ experience.
- ^ American Art Therapy Association. (n.d.). What is Art Therapy? Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://arttherapy.org/what-is-art-therapy/.
- ^ Vaisvaser, S. (2021). The Embodied-Enactive-Interactive Brain: Bridging Neuroscience and Creative Arts Therapies. Sec. Health Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.634079.
- ^ Malchiodi, C. (1998). The Art Therapy Sourcebook. Lowell House.
- ^ Hinz, L. (2015). Expressive Therapies Continuum: Use and Value Demonstrated With Case Study. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 28(1-2), 43-50. DOI:10.1080/08322473.2015.1100581.
- ^ Harpazi, S., Raubach-Kaspy, R., Regevi, D., & Snir, S. (2020). Perceptions of Art Therapy in Adolescent Clients Treated Within the School System. Sec. Health Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.518304.
- ^ Stepney, S. A. (2010). Art Therapy with Students at Risk: Fostering Resilience and Growth through Self-Expression. Charles C. Thomas Ltd.
- ^ Hanes, M. J. (1995). Clinical Application of the Scribble Technique with Adults in an Acute Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. Retrived from https://www.artpsychotherapy.com/PDF/ClinicalApplicationoftheScribbleDrawing.pdf.
- ^ Heater, S. L., & Wilkinson, V. C. (1979). Therapeutic Media and Techniques of Application: A Guide for Activities Therapists. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
- ^ Sutton, J. (2023). Dance Therapy: 4 Best Techniques for Healing With Rhythm. Positive Psychology. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/dance-therapy/#how-to-do-dance-therapy-4-techniques.
- ^ Moula, Z. (2020). A systematic review of the effectiveness of art therapy delivered in school-based settings to children aged 5–12 years. International Journal of Art Therapy, 25(2), 88-99. DOI: 10.1080/17454832.2020.1751219.