Illustration of boat and magical door

Art therapy for children and teens: solving problems through a creative process

Art therapy is a concrete visual way to create freedom of expression for children or teens when it is difficult to find words for the complex feelings and emotions they are experiencing. As an art therapist, I have seen young people use the art process as a way to communicate ideas and feelings in powerful ways. Information from the unconscious mind can be released through the art to assist in solving problems. Sometimes, only after the art is created can feelings be processed enough to express in words. Art therapy can be used as an assessment tool and means for gaining access to a child or teen’s inner world, and art making itself can provide a novel way to creatively engage in exploring new ways of perceiving problems and finding answers. Media used can include pencil, pen, crayons, markers, pastels, colored pencils, paint, clay, collage, and crafts.

Oftentimes once a problem has been successfully worked through in the art, it can then be generalized and applied to real life experience. Art therapy is also often a safe way for young people to share and present distress, and the process of creating and experiencing in the art can reinforce successes and change in their lives. New ideas and feelings are expanded, highlighted, and transformed.

Art supplies on desk

A strength-based approach to art therapy

Young people can feel powerless to change problems they are experiencing. However, when they feel they are not the problem and it is no longer a part of their identity, they are often motivated to use their ingenuity and other inherent strengths to take charge of the problem in a spirited and playful way. Art therapy for children and teens can be easily used to carry out this goal. I highlight and reinforce the unique exceptions to the problem-saturated story presented and as an art therapist, I can then help in the visual creation of a new story based upon these more preferred events and successful outcomes. By using a strength-based approach paired with a familiar form of expression, during the art therapy process feelings of competency and self-esteem are increased. Both the “problem” and “inner strength” can be externalized, separated from the child or teen, and also can be created visually through art therapy. Positive self-talk can be developed and reinforced, while negative self-talk can be explored and challenged. As resources are uncovered, and the “problem” becomes more manageable and seen as apart from the young person’s sense of self, he or she can then become empowered to find new solutions.

Expressive arts therapy

As an art therapist with a strong background in theatre, I have found that utilizing expressive arts therapy resonates well with the way young people naturally express themselves and see the world. This approach can be customized to a child or teen’s creative interests and preferred mode of expression. It can be a play therapy practice that stimulates the imagination by incorporating art making, along with drama, story telling, music, sand tray, toys, action figures, and puppets. Together we can create a new story that increases confidence in the ability to effectively handle complex feelings.
Arts Therapy drawing

Art Therapy FAQs

I will ask your child or teen to create art based upon a specific directive intended to further the therapy process. I am very clear that we are NOT in art class. In art therapy, it is the process of creating art and not the finished product that is important. When judgment and self-critique get in the way, I support your child in leaving this behind. Oftentimes art created can lead to the discovery of new ideas and ways to move forward with collaborative goals. Using art therapy successfully does not depend upon whether your child is a talented artist, but simply upon whether your child enjoys the process and is willing to participate. The meaning of the art is to be explored together and is based upon his or her vision and intended message.
Art therapy is beneficial on many levels. First, it is a means to draw out into concrete and conscious visual form important information from the unconscious mind, to then be processed and used in constructive, healthy, and positive ways during therapy sessions. In the realm of neuroscience, this cognitive reappraisal process activates higher brain regions and helps decrease the stress response by increasing awareness and bringing a new perspective to a problem. This process safely unfolds with the support and guidance of a trained art therapist. Second, engaging in art making itself is a way to release anxiety and distress. Creating art has been found to trigger activation of neurotransmitters that elicit a sense of pleasure and accomplishment, and can enhance emotional regulation and problem solving capacities.
No. As you well know, if your child is not motivated to do something, success will be difficult. There are many other ways to creatively work with your child to obtain the same results if art making is not preferred. However, sometimes young people can have a negative perception about art. The need to make something that looks "good" can create pressure and become an obstacle to open participation. Also, sometimes there can initially be a specific view of what constitutes art. When exploring likes and dislikes, while pencil and paper may create stress and is not of interest, perhaps we can find that collage or clay is enjoyable and a new way of looking at the art process.
Your child's art belongs to him or her, and is kept safely and confidentially with me until the child requests it, or until the therapy process is over. As in all information shared in therapy, it is his or her choice to disclose the content of the art.
I am a registered art therapist, which means I have the necessary amount and specific type of education, training, and experience to be granted this professional credential through the Art Therapy Credentials Board.
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