The Art of Healing – Using Art as Therapy with Teenagers and Young Adults
Art therapy is often used to help teenagers and young adults who are experiencing a range of challenges, such as bereavement, family breakdown, anxiety, low mood, low self-esteem, behavioural or social problems, or difficulties relating to abuse, neglect or trauma.
Research has repeatedly shown that positive change occurs during the process of physical engagement with art materials; through making a significant art object; through redirecting of feelings into an art work; and through communicating with a therapist via an art object.
It supports young people with developmental, emotional and behavioural problems by providing a safe and creative space in which they can begin to explore their worries, concerns and feelings – with guidance and support from a trained art therapist. It has been proven effective in reaching even the toughest of teens!
Art therapy is just one of the family of ‘expressive and creative arts therapies’ used at The Wave, where our teenagers and young adults can enjoy weekly scheduled activities in creative, therapeutic mediums.
What is Art Therapy?
Humans have used the arts to communicate, express themselves and heal for many thousands of years, but it is only since the 1940s that Art Therapy has been formally recognised as a therapeutic tool, playing an important role in the assessment and treatment of many mental health conditions.
The foundation of art therapy is Freud’s theory of unconscious and is built on the assertion that visual images – whether creating them or viewing others’ – are the simplest and most natural form of human expression and experience.
Art therapy falls under the umbrella term ‘Expressive Therapies’ – which includes music, drama, creative writing, and dance and movement. Research has shown that through the process of creative expression – used alongside psychotherapeutic techniques – psychological disorders can be assessed and treated, improving mental health and emotional wellness.
Art therapy isn’t simply about creating art, and no artistic ability or talent is necessary to participate. Unlike art classes, where the focus is on learning specific techniques and creating particular pieces of finished work, art therapy focuses on the inner experience, expressing the inner world and focusing on feelings, thoughts, perceptions and whatever comes up during the creative process.
The therapeutic value of art therapy has been recognised in many recent studies, and is shown to be effective with people of all ages – from preschoolers to the elderly.
Art Therapy at The Wave
At The Wave, our creative arts therapy sessions use a variety of methods, such as pottery, painting, costume and fashion design, jewellery making, dance and drama as a means of self-expression.
The process of working with materials such as paint, oil pastels, clay and fabrics – and creating a final product – has amazing healing properties that help our young people:
- explore and share their emotions
- strengthen their sense of self
- manage stress
- work through their problems
- learn better coping skills
- uncover different aspects of their personalities
- boost self-esteem.
At The Wave, art therapy offers our young people a safe form of emotional expression and communication, unrestricted by language and / or communication difficulties. The art offers a bridge between their inner world and the outside world, free of the confines of meeting certain levels of cognitive functioning.
If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint. ~ Edward Hopper
The main aim of our art therapy sessions is to enable positive growth, through engagement with the art materials and the therapist, in a safe and creative space.
How does Art Therapy work?
Art therapy is about making art, in the company of a trained therapist. The art acts as a bridge between the young person and the therapist and can assist in creating a dialogue between them, either verbally or through the emerging art work.
The art created can also serve as a transitional object – maintaining a connection between the young person and the therapist both within and between sessions – providing an important level of security.
Art therapists are specifically trained in both artistic principles and psychotherapy, and understand how the process of art can be beneficial for people to communicate their thoughts and feelings. They select the materials and the focus of each creative arts project, appropriate to the specific needs of each individual.
Examples can include: creating a collage about their feelings, painting a portrait of how they think others see them, making masks or puppets through which to discuss difficult issues, and drawing or sculpting an impression of what their fear / sadness / rage looks like.
The weekly art therapy sessions at The Wave are designed to:
- help our teenagers and young adults to recognise and label their emotions
- support them as they learn to regulate difficult emotions
- manage specific behavioural difficulties
- broaden perspectives
- build frustration tolerance
- support sensory integration
- promote the development of interpersonal skills
- support mentalization processes (the ability to see and understand ones own thoughts and motivations – and those of others)
- equip our young people with the coping skills needed to navigate life with increased confidence and resilience
- build self-confidence and self-esteem
- encourage the life-affirming pleasures of art making.
Further research is needed to tell us more about the complexities of the relationship between therapist, young person and art object, including how the process of change actually occurs.
What we do know is that the art therapy sessions allow us to gain a greater understanding of our young persons’ functioning, resources, strengths, challenges and adaptability – which not only enhances our communication with them, but also informs valuable observation and assessment.
We can gain valuable insights just by observing the process, through things like formal elements used in the art work, such as line, colour and shape. These can make a valuable contribution to the descriptive diagnosis, and help us in planning future treatments that will be of maximum benefit.
What can Art Therapy be used to Treat?
There are many proven psychological benefits gained through the application of art therapy. It has been shown to be effective when used with people of all ages, to treat a wide range of mental health disorders and psychological distress.
At The Wave, our creative arts therapy sessions are used alongside other psychotherapy techniques, such a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Group Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), to achieve the very best results.
Research shows that positive results can be achieved when art therapy is used as a complementary therapy to treat:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- cognitive impairments
- eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia
- emotional difficulties
- family or relationship problems
- psychological symptoms associated with medical issues, such as cancer or disability
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- psychological issues
- substance use / dependency.
Art therapy, along with other creative interventions, can be a powerful tool in therapy, to help us assess, treat and improve a variety of mental, physical and emotional conditions.
What are the Benefits of using Art Therapy with Teenagers and Young Adults?
The benefits of using art as a therapy with teenagers and young adults include:
- It bypasses a problem when our young people’s reflective and communicative skills are not sufficiently developed for them to verbally communicate what they are thinking or how they are feeling. Creating art is the primary focus, with increased understanding, reflection and verbal expression usually following later.
- Some therapy types – such as talking therapies – involve one-on-one sessions with an adult, which can feel threatening or overwhelming for teenagers and young adults. Art therapy provides an opportunity to disengage from potentially intense, verbal confrontation and instead engage in mindful, mood-regulating activities. The focus is on the process of creating art and therefore takes a lot of pressure off them.
- Art therapy provides an opportunity for young people to express themselves without being limited by the words and narratives of the adults in their lives. It opens up the opportunity to be really and truly understood, on their own terms.
- Where art therapy is used in our group or family therapy sessions, young people have a natural opportunity in which learn and practise new patterns of relating, and to develop their social and interpersonal skills.
- Through the creation of art work, our young people can begin to externalize their inner world – representing their thoughts and emotions – which can be hard for them to understand or express verbally. It helps them make sense of difficulties that they cannot easily put into words.
- In cases where our teenagers and young adults find their issues too painful or too complicated to talk about, the art therapy sessions provide a safe outlet to uncover and express underlying thoughts and feelings. This is especially helpful for those too traumatized to speak about their experiences.
- During art therapy, our young people are encouraged to verbalize during the process and comment on their final product, they can talk about whatever comes up for them but there is no pressure to talk at all. As a result, it is a process over which they can feel a sense of control, which they may not feel in other areas of their lives.
- For many young people, art therapy provides an opportunity to explore internal conflicts that stem from fear-based thought patterns. They can be reluctant to talk about certain thoughts and feelings with adults, but art therapy helps circumvent feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear or resistance by allowing free expression through less confrontational and non-verbal techniques.
- Self expression through art can provide our young people with a trusted process to explore their own identity. This can help them to construct a more positive self image through the reflection and insight gained. Building self-confidence and self-esteem in turn supports them in finding a voice.
- Directing their pain, rage, shame and other difficult feelings into making art, can have a positive impact on a young person’s ability to self-regulate emotions and manage behaviours. Where an art object emerges out of destructive / dysfunctional feelings, those feelings are expressed through the art instead of ‘acting out’ behaviours.
- Art therapy can be particularly supportive for our young people when exploring and expressing their personal narratives around their diagnosis – what it means to them, and how they would like to be supported.
In addition to helping our young people to make sense of their thoughts and emotions, develop greater self-awareness, cope with stress and boost self-esteem, art therapy also allows us to gain a greater understanding of their functioning, challenges and adaptability – to better inform the treatments they need moving forward.
All of these factors make art therapy an extremely valuable tool in helping our teenagers and young adults achieve positive growth, and in aiding their full recovery.
Mahisha Naidu leads our Creative Arts Therapy activities, having trained in Dance and Movement Psychotherapy at Goldsmiths in London. Mahisha has led The Wave Clinical Team for two years. She is passionate in her treatment of Eating Disorders and leads our food and body groups three times each week.
Her role has seen her develop a specialist interest in working with adolescent girls, particularly focused on borderline personality disorder, self-harm and developing emotional regulation in young adults. Mahisha is currently studying Internal Family Structures (IFS).
IFS is an innovative therapy, particularly suited to our work at The Wave, where it has been effective with our young people and their families. Mahisha is a member of APPCH.