Can Art Therapy Help My Troubled Teen?

A teenage girl painting in a studio.

JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images

Art therapy uses materials such as paint, oil pastels, markers, clay or crayons as a means of self-expression. The process of working with the materials and creating a final product helps troubled teens gain self-understanding, learn better coping methods and work through problems.

Art therapy can be used for many problems that teenagers face and it can even be used to reach the toughest of teens.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapists are specially trained in both psychological and artistic principles. This training directs them in choosing the materials and focus appropriate to a teens' specific needs.

In art therapy sessions, a teen is asked to use the materials to develop art around a certain idea.

For example, teens may be asked to create:

  • A portrait of how they think others see them
  • Paint what their sadness feels like
  • A photo collage about their feelings from magazine clippings
  • Sculpt their family from clay
  • Make a mask that helps them feel more secure when talking about their problems
  • A visual journal as an alternative way to express their feelings daily

In some instances, the teen may also be asked to participate in group art therapy sessions.

Why Art Therapy May Help Troubled Teens

This therapeutic approach appeals to many teens as a way to externalize their inner world. A teen does not need to have any artistic talent to benefit from this approach.

The therapist does not interpret the final product. It is up to the teen to share and talk about whatever information they choose.

In this type of specialized therapy, the focus is on the process of creating and, to a lesser extent, on the final product.

The teen is encouraged to:

  • Verbalize during the process of creating
  • Comment on their reactions to the final product

Creating is the primary initial focus, increased self-understanding usually comes later.

Art therapy programs are offered in most residential programs for teens and are also available on an outpatient basis.

Advantages of Art Therapy

Traditional individual therapy can feel like cross-examination to some teens. Others don't express themselves well verbally. In some cases, a teen's problems are too painful or complicated to put into words.

As a type of expressive therapy, art therapy works very well with some teens because it is:

  • Non-threatening with less of a direct focus on the teen.
  • A safe outlet for expressing what they are feeling inside.
  • A process over which the teen feels a sense of control.
  • The session is both interesting and creative.
  • A way to discover underlying thoughts and feelings.
  • Easier to develop a strong relationship with the therapist.

For some teens, art is a better language to communicate than talking. Because this is an attractive type of therapy for teens, they are more likely to continue to participate and stick with the process until the problems improve.

By Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Kathyrn Rudlin, LCSW, a writer and therapist in California specializes in counseling and education for teenagers with mothers who are emotionally disconnected.