Art Therapy with Youth
The greatest difficulty for any adult seeking to establish a relationship with a young person is the teen’s resistance to authority and lack of trust in the adult world. This stage of adolescent development is normal, but it works against the traditional forms of verbal therapy.
Art therapy can be effective for youth as they usually see it as a nonthreatening form of treatment. The art that the teen produces can help the art therapist gain some idea of the youth’s concerns and life circumstances, especially those situations that are too risky to reveal or too personally embarrassing to share or verbalise. This awareness better equips the therapist in efforts to protect and support the adolescent during this turbulent time of life.
Human experience cannot be entirely reduced to words. Expressing how it feels to love or hate, to be traumatised or to suffer depression is difficult. Often words cannot suffice.
Art Therapy with Youth
In contrast, taking risks to describe experiences through images and overcoming one’s fears and frustrations by expressing feelings through a medium other than words can be liberating, not only for young people. It can give a client a better understanding of themselves and how they see the world. It also helps in their personal development.
Art therapy and the work with the unconscious is not hindered by ambivalence, a status too familiar with young people. The importance the image had at the time it was made lay in its capacity to contain and hold ambivalent feelings … formerly experienced as unbearable and inexpressible. No longer entirely stuck or frozen within, these feelings could be now outside, contained within the boundaries of the sheet of paper.
Another advantage of the art therapy is that the artwork or image produced at a certain point in time means changes can be seen during late sessions which helps in continuity and documenting personal and psychological growth.
The aim of art therapy for teens with mental health issues or mild depression and anxiety would include the above and help bring relaxation, understanding, mindfulness, enlightenment and colour into their troubled lives. When young people get into a relaxed state, they feel less threatened and are more willing to focus, share, open-up and gain a better understanding or insight—when unconscious ideas, feelings and experiences become conscious.
Art therapy in a social action context is, in my opinion, important for youth art therapy, as it not only combines art and therapy, but it also makes a commitment to social responsibility. Exhibitions of the work of teenagers, including indigenous Australians and people from other cultures, for example, could foster understanding and provide advocacy opportunities through exposure to the community. It gives the opportunity for the individual or group to ‘be seen’ and therefore challenge any stereotypical prejudices that may exist. The clients are now seen as creative and artistic, people who possess talents and abilities.
Here’s an example of a theme that can be beneficial to youth:
Ask the teen to take a small box and use materials, paint, rocks and shells, special items they have collected, memorabilia, feathers, beads or any item that takes their fancy and create a box as a tribute to a special memory, thought or feeling. Use the created box as a tool to initiate discussion—how the teens see themselves and their world.
Robert GrayDirector and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.
A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has become a much sought-after art therapy lecturer and practising art therapist in Australia. His unique approach spanning psychodynamic, humanistic, spiritual and cognitive behavioural frameworks has distinguished him as a thought leader who is frequently invited to present at conferences in Australia and abroad.
Trained overseas and multilingual, German-born Robert shares the benefits of his international affiliations and access to cutting-edge research published in various languages with his students and readers. Robert is a professional member of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS).