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Art therapy with adolescents

Understanding adolescents is a challenge at best, and the adolescent who is ill or suffering from psychological stress is an even greater conundrum. The physician treats the physical problem but often puzzles over where to find therapeutic treatment for this age group. Teenagers are sensitive about their image, particularly with their peers, and often put themselves at emotional risk rather than confess that they need help from a “shrink.” Furthermore, their view of the “talking” psychotherapies has been shaped by the movies, and they often think that these therapies are only for serious “mental” cases. In contrast, they come to art therapy without such preconceived ideas, and this form of therapy has proved effective with adolescents.

Imagery taps into a person's earliest way of knowing and reacting to the world; therefore, it is not foreign to the experience of learning. Art as a language of therapy, combined with verbal dialogue, uses all of our capacities to find a more successful resolution to our difficulties.

In art therapy, the client is asked to make a collage, make some marks on paper, or shape a small piece of clay to illustrate the difficulties that have brought them to therapy. The art therapist does not interpret the art piece, and the clients are free to share as much of the meaning of their art as they choose. Adolescents, in particular, are attracted to making symbols and graphic depictions; therefore, they are more attracted to using art as language than to verbal questioning. When the negative behavior is illustrated, it is then external to the individual, and the behavior thus becomes the problem, not the individual.

This externalization of an internal stress or by the creation of “nonartistic art” allows both the therapist and the client to better address the problem. The therapist gains greater knowledge of the problem because the client uses metaphor and narrative to explain the product. The “art” allows clients to distance themselves from their own dilemma and, in that manner, work with the therapist toward alternative solutions to a problem.


As adolescents mature, they develop the ability to understand abstract concepts and to form judgments. The desire to find their individual selves is processed through stages— an overly intensive absorption with themselves, exaggerated dependency on peers, and withdrawal from parental influences. In addition, societal and economic pressures on adolescents fit into a mold of behaviors that are not necessarily in harmony with their internal stages of maturing. For example, we have all seen the tall 13-year-old boy who is thought of by his teachers and friends as “older” when he may not feel older at all. In many cases, he may even feel younger then his chronologic age. He is in conflict just because his growth mechanisms kicked in earlier than did those of his peers. The discrepancies between the adolescents' expectations, the expectations of society, and the commercial image projected by the media is the source of much of the confusion of today's youths.

The greatest difficulty for an adult seeking to establish a relationship with an adolescent is the teen's resistance to authority and lack of trust in the adult world. These stages of adolescent development are normal, but they work against the traditional forms of verbal therapy.


Art as an expressive language provides an entrée into a relationship with teenagers by tapping into their creativity and offering a form of communication that is nonthreatening and over which the adolescent has control. When teens enter the art therapy room, they find drawing materials and other forms of media on a table. They are invited to draw anything they choose and even to make a statement in images that represent their feelings about being in the therapeutic setting.

This casual approach is a surprise to the teen and counteracts the fears of exposure and pain that may have been expected. The art materials are more than meet the eye. The art therapist understands the evocative powers of, for example, oil pastels, clay, paint, and felt pens. Each form of media, in its own way, assists in the expressive process. The teens feel that they “lucked out” by having a therapist who is not interested in verbal cross-examination. Instead, their therapist is interested in their opinions of their world as expressed through imagery.

Source: NCBI

  • March 27, 2016
  • Tracee Garrett