Most people probably wouldn’t describe themselves as creative, but creativity has many different forms. Just because someone doesn’t feel creative in the traditional sense doesn’t mean they don’t express themselves in other ways, like telling stories or playing music.
Whatever that creative outlet looks like, it can play an important role in your client’s progress. Creative activities help relieve stress, form connections, and encourage self-esteem, particularly in younger people. In therapy, where all those concerns are top-of-mind for many clinicians, art therapy activities can be a powerful way to connect with teenage clients.
What is Art Therapy?
Art therapy, as the name suggests, taps into the creative process to support clinical treatment goals. It can be used to improve cognitive skills and motor-function, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, and enhance social skills. Art therapists are certified by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB), and receive extensive training to help their clients explore the concerns that brought them to therapy.
Art therapy activities tend to focus on visual arts—like drawing, painting, and sculpting. But creativity isn’t limited to just the visual arts. Some clients may be uncomfortable with drawing or painting if they don’t feel skilled in those areas. Expressive art therapy incorporates other forms of creativity—like poetry, music, dance, and even drama—into treatment as well.
10 Art Therapy Activities for Teenagers in Your Practice
Board-certified art therapists get a lot of training on how to effectively incorporate art therapy treatments into their practice. Other mental health practitioners can use art in their practices, but if you do decide to do so, make sure you conduct research and do all the necessary prep beforehand. When you’re confident in your knowledge and ready to take the leap, here are ten art therapy activities for teenagers you can incorporate into your treatments.
1. Collage Collage is a great option for clients who might be more self-conscious about their artistic abilities. Using scraps of paper and magazines takes off the pressure to draw something on their own, while still offering a creative outlet. You also might be able to gather some clinical information based on images they use.
2. Journaling For your clients who may feel more comfortable writing than drawing, a journal is an easy and natural way for them to express themselves. There are many clinical benefits to journaling, and if your client is inclined to keep a diary of some kind, this might be an easy transition for them to make in therapy. It’s also easy for your clients to do on their own time. If it’s something they find especially helpful, they can even continue journaling after they stop coming to therapy.
3. Photography Most people have access to a smartphone, so your clients may already be taking photos of things that matter to them. Talk about the pictures they take, and see which ones evoke feelings and why. If your client enjoys photography, consider giving them a few words each week at the end of the session, so they can come prepared with pictures that represent those words for your next session.
4. Puppets Younger clients might enjoy this more, as teenagers and adults might feel that they’ve outgrown puppets. But if you work with children, making the puppets together is something creative and fun you can do together. Then your clients can use the puppets to talk for them if they need some distance from a particular subject.
5. Sculpting Some clients might be more nonverbal or kinetic communicators. It might be difficult for them to sit still, make eye contact, and talk for a whole session. An effective way to encourage kinetic communicators to talk is by keeping their hands active—like making a sculpture together.
6. Music Music plays a significant role in art therapy. Invite your clients to come prepared to a session with a soundtrack of songs that are important to them. What’s more important to them, the lyrics or the sounds? If music is helpful, create a theme for each week, such as stress-reducing songs or music to meditate to, and ask your clients to share their playlists.
7. Interpretations Show your teen client pictures of people, either interacting in groups or on their own. Make sure these images express many different emotions. Ask your client to describe what’s happening in the photo. If the person is alone, ask what they might be thinking or feeling. How your client interprets the photo may give you insight into their thinking.
8. Mask-Making Your clients can’t see their own faces in a session with you, but creating a mask gives them a chance to look at their face head-on. Have your teen client make two masks. The first should show how they feel they present themselves to the world. The second should show how they actually feel inside. Spend a session talking about the difference between the two.
9. Doodling Some teens have a natural inclination towards doodling. You can embrace this instinct in therapy. Give your client a large photo of someone’s face and give them markers to draw over that face. Then ask them to describe the alterations they made, and why. Did they make a happy-looking person look angry? Why?
10. Blackout Poetry To create a blackout poem, you take already-completed writing—like the page of a book or a newspaper—and redact certain words, so the words that are left form their own poem. Pay attention to what words your client chooses to keep, and what message is formed by the poetry they’ve written. You can also use the words they keep as the basis of a free association activity.
What Can Art Therapy Treat?
Although art therapy might seem better suited for children or teenagers, it can be used to effectively treat adults as well. Because the creative process is naturally a stress-reliever for many people, art therapy activities can help address severe stress, anxiety, PTSD, and family conflicts.
Art therapy has also been successful in treating anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Studies have shown that quality of life tends to increase with art therapy treatment, and that clients see growth in their coping skills, self-expression, and even social skills.
All that said, there’s still a lot of research being done as to just how effective art therapy is for different groups and clinical concerns. A study done in 2015 found that while art therapy activities can be effective for things like anxiety, depression, and trauma, there’s not enough data to know if they’re as effective with psychotic mental health disorders.
Each form of art therapy has its benefits and disorders that it’s best suited for. Before incorporating any into your practice, you should consider all your options. Then you can choose which one will be best suited for your individual clients and help them explore what they enjoy most.
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