What Art Therapy Can Reveal About Your Adolescent’s Inner World

What Art Therapy Can Reveal About Your Adolescent's Inner World

Takeaway: Art therapy is a powerful tool to help adolescents connect with their unconscious mind. And this lets them explore emotions, experiences, and struggles in a way that regular ‘talk therapy’ often can’t. The key is to find the right therapist, though. Someone who understands child psychology and is trained to use art as a therapeutic tool.

It’s hard being an adolescent because you’re stuck in an ‘in-between’ stage of life.

Adolescents go through biological changes which gradually make them look like adults, but they haven’t yet developed adult reasoning and emotional maturity. So, they want the freedom to experiment with life, discover themselves, and create a lasting self-identity. Yet they need parents to step in and rescue them from mistakes. It’s like they’re being pulled in multiple directions and don’t know what to do about it.

Also, it’s frustrating when no one else seems to understand how unfair life is.

As children move into adolescence, their brains slowly develop a capacity for abstract thinking. So they build up this mental ideal of the perfect world and get annoyed when confronted with all the unfairness and imperfections of reality. They begin to argue about philosophy, politics, religion, and more – hoping to bring order into the world without quite knowing how. And since their emotional intelligence hasn’t yet caught up to their intellectual abilities, they’ll likely spend a lot of time feeling helpless, out of control, and ignored.

Here’s where art therapy can help. It’s a powerful way of dealing with all this teenage angst.

Art therapy works so well with adolescents because it encourages them to stop overthinking their problems and stay grounded in their bodies and emotions instead. Art (painting, drawing, sculpting, etc.) is a means for us humans to communicate things we can’t express in words. So, through the creative and sensory process of making art, children have a new way of connecting with their unconscious mind. Instead of struggling with a conflict internally, they get to bring it out into the open – ‘trapping’ it within their work of art. Then, in the clear light of day and guided by a skilled therapist, an adolescent can calmly examine and process this conflict. It’s a freeing experience, and since the art can be reviewed again later, it’s a great way to track a child’s emotional growth and progress.

But children don’t have to be artistic to benefit from art therapy.

Art therapy is a spontaneous process of expressing raw inner feelings. So, it’s often counterproductive to create refined or ‘pretty’ art. Instead, it’s messy, ‘ugly’ art that’s more authentic and grounded in real emotion – which is what makes it so therapeutic. And this idea can be freeing for adolescents who don’t think of themselves as artists. A skilled therapist can help them push past the urge to create beautiful art and, instead, express something meaningful.

It’s incredible how even the simplest exercises can trigger deep introspection.

The ‘mask’ exercise is a great example of a simple project that can encourage a lot of soul-searching. Here, children make a face mask out of paper, and then fill it with drawings, symbols, words, and colours. On the outside of the mask, they depict how they think other people see them, and on the inside, they depict how they see themselves. It’s such a simple but powerful exercise to explore the difference between their self-identity and their perceived social roles. We can also customise the exercise based on a child’s needs. For instance, if they don’t want to draw or write on the mask, they can fill it with a photo collage using magazine cutouts instead. And older adolescents can first explore their core values and beliefs and use these as the theme around which to build their collage.

Art therapy heals in so many ways – especially by addressing an adolescent’s silent inner battles.

Art can bring together fragmented parts of a child’s inner world, making it whole and restoring its beauty. And this restoration can heal the stress, anxieties, fears, loneliness, and physical symptoms (headaches, tummy aches, tiredness) that adolescents struggle with. But it can also help older adolescents and young adults process experiences they didn’t realise bothered them. For example, one therapist describes how a client drew a simple downward-sloping line on a piece of paper. It didn’t mean anything to him at first, but soon he was shocked to realise it reminded him of his mother’s empty lap. And this brought out a torrent of emotion to do with how his mother never really held him much as a young child. How incredible that an ordinary line could uncover scars this young adult didn’t even know he had!

Most importantly, though, art therapy is fun.

Making art – i.e., living in the moment and following whatever creative impulses pop up – feels like the opposite of the rigidly structured adult world adolescents are trained to live in. Art gives them a chance to play without seeming childish. And there’s a fun sense of power in creating something that records your presence – sort of like a socially responsible version of writing your name on a park bench.

All of this requires a skilled therapist, though. Someone who understands child psychology.

The sensory experiences of art therapy can tap into emotions and memories that might otherwise be unreachable. But to engineer this, you’ll need someone who understands child psychology and is trained to use art as a therapeutic tool. So, for more information and support, feel free to reach out to us. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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