Good day to you, in this article we’ll discuss 10 reasons (in my opinion) art therapy is great for teens from all walks of life. As you’ll see, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn art therapy is growing in popularity across America. Enjoy!
Introduction: Why I Love Art Therapy
While I’m not technically an art therapist, I’m a child psychiatrist and have been integrating it into my practice here for roughly the last 5 years or so.
Since you’ve put me on the spot… it’s because I thoroughly enjoy witnessing positive changes develop in adolescents (and their parents). Seeing creativity, expression, and art bring about progress in people’s lives is invaluable.
I love how art helps to create comfortable non-threatening environments, without criticism or being right or wrong. It’s contained, yet liberating on so many levels.
Do keep in mind I typically work with adolescents/parents (families) grappling with mental/emotional issues – depression, ADHD, bipolar, anxiety, etc. But the cool thing about art therapy is that it can be just as beneficial for healthy and balanced individuals as someone tackling trauma and obstacles.
And with that said, let’s jump into this thing.
1) It’s A Potential Alternative to Medication
Yes, for some kids where medication isn’t needed, based on a number of variables/dynamics, art therapy can be an effective approach – a good option. For others, art therapy is more supplemental and compliments other treatments.
The reasons behind this can get extremely complex. But, suffice it to say art therapy helps to sort of re-wire certain parts of the brain, assist the different neurological (developmental) changes that happen during the 13-21 years, and build much more mental-emotional-physical balance.
2) Art Increases Emotional Intelligence
Emotions are extremely powerful! Before we know it we’re swept into them, whether that be elation or teeth-grinding stress. It’s only when the dust clears we step back and look at not only the emotions themselves, but our reactions.
Art therapy is a way to help us learn to harness emotions. We can pinpoint how certain events, topics, or memories, make us feel through the creative prism of art which isn’t threatening or judgemental. Instead, it’s cathartic and therapeutic.
We increase our emotional intelligence through these three basic steps:
- Observe: really look at our emotions; to “see” them.
- Process: learn how to process them in healthy ways.
- Express: over time learning how to convey thoughts & emotions more positively.
Think about it, have you ever really been taught or shown how to go through these steps? Not surprisingly most people haven’t. It takes practice and a platform, which art can be.
Through art therapy exercises, we’re practicing how to identify and then corral or funnel emotions into better activities and outcomes.
3) Art Therapy Improves Focus
Obviously to observe, process, and express with intention we need focus. But, it’s more than that.
What art therapy improves is our general ability to concentrate. I see this constantly with ADHD kids who tend to experience wild emotions. Art helps them cut out the haze of incoming data and pay attention to the task at hand, whether that’s painting a wave on a seashore, or just being expressive with vivid colors.
Through time and exposure, they learn how to positively channel their emotions without going into dramatic behavior or verbal outbursts.
Or, just to focus on the core challenges they face throughout the day.
Coolest part is that EVERY art therapy exercise is a success, a reward, and positive feedback. Michael Clatch, PsyD, addressed this point in his article, “Is Art Therapy for ADHD the Right Choice for Your Child?” for GoodTherapy.org (1),
“With an art project of their choice, children with ADHD are given an outlet upon which to focus. Although the duration of attention to the project may increase over several sessions, the process is one that builds the capability of the child with ADHD to channel energy in a positive way that results in accomplishment. This also has an impact on the child’s self-esteem.”
Speaking of which…
4) Art is a Safe Way to Reinforce Positives
Sometimes even the most creative children are apprehensive about art. At first they resist, not yet understanding how valuable the practice can be in their lives.
But magic happens the initial time they feel a real sense of personal empowerment; that first second they see emotions can be controlled; when their eyes light up to the realization there are tons of amazing and positive things about them!
Kids dealing with depression really come alive here, unearthing ways to identify and focus on their positives – strengths, values, virtues, unique traits, ambitions, and so on, all wrapped in a rewarding experience of creation.
5) Art Therapy Builds Stress-Management Skills
Funny thing is, you don’t have to be stressed out to learn how to manage stress. No different for building muscle – it’s what you do after your workout, and what you eat, and how you rest that matters when it comes to building/maintaining physical fitness.
Stress is the same way. The most effective stress management skills are typically learned in calm, safe, and non-stressful environments.
- Patience: The process of creating art teaches patience by its very nature, right?
- Cortisol: Known as the “stress hormone,” art has been shown to lower levels in both adolescents and adults. This is where our science is validating what artists have always understood. (2)
- Perception: Half the battle has to do with how we look at or perceive stress and the situation or event causing it. When we change our way of looking, we change everything.
Using certain parameters, like for example painting a symbolic tree and surrounding environment, we can alter the way we view (empower/disempower) our “personal demons” and the mole hills we’re seeing as mountains.
6) It Strengthens Communication Skills
Both in terms of how we communicate with others, AND, ourselves. Creating art is sort of a conversation, where either parents or health professionals or art therapists can play quasi-moderators. We, or the exercise, help to direct the discussion to say, steer them (or ourselves) towards better managing performance-based stress or insecurities.
Art itself is symbolic speech! The colors, shapes, and presentations represent the artist. It can illuminate or convey things we don’t have words for. It’s a universal language in fact.
In the 2014 article in Psychiatric Times, “Art Therapy in a Patient With Bipolar Disorder: Pictures Speak More Than a Thousand Words,” a group of MDs make this important distinction (3):
“The act of creating art is connected with sublimation, a secondary defensive process defined as a creative, healthful, socially acceptable, or beneficial resolution of internal conflicts between primitive urges and inhibiting forces.”
Basically, art helps us transform negatives into positives, and be able to communicate with ourselves and others about them in non-judgemental, non-hostile, and noninvasive ways.
7) Art Helps Us Explore Our Self-Identity
The search for self is never ending, but during the adolescent and young adult stages of life it can become all-consuming. Oftentimes we end up piling on superficialities, social trends, and other exteriors that overwhelm and confuse us.
- Are we the type of clothes we wear?
- Are we the type of music we listen to?
- Are we the choices we’ve made in the past?
- Are we our social or economic status?
Philosophically though, it’s hard to say exactly who we are because self-identity changes and evolves. However, all throughout known history art has been one of the primary ways or vehicles humans have used to try and define (or express) ourselves and our cultures.
For teens and young adults, art provides a way to explore themselves that isn’t limiting, or free flow – emotions, outlets, peer choices, goals, relationships, and values.
8) Art Provides New Approaches/Perspectives
When scientists have tried everything they can think of, they must change parameters and look at the problem from different angles. On the neurological level, art helps us look at things in unique ways because we’re using different parts of our brain – and our imagination!
The imagination isn’t as constricted as the rational mind. Our research backs this assertion.
For example, in 2014 a serious study was published in the PLOS ONE journal that demonstrated making visual art improves connectivity in the parts of the brain (the default mode network, or DMN) that activates when we focus internally, or consider our future.(4)
I especially like this quote from a Business Insider article concerning the subject and their findings (5),
“Scientists have previously observed that when people say they’re especially “moved” by a piece of art, those feelings are linked to activity in the default mode network. While this research is in the earliest stages, it might suggest that the art people connect with deeply — likely including the art that they create — might be the result of “a certain ‘harmony’ between the external world and our internal representation of the self,” the researchers explain.”
9) Problem Solving Skills
Did you know studies have proven athletes who spend time visualizing their performance “the night before” tend to do much better on the field? It’s true! Well, adolescents who spend time safely practicing how to navigate obstacles tend to do better in life…because life’s chock-full of obstacles.
We could argue problem solving itself is an art form, is it not? As we mature, we (ideally) learn more finesse, tact, and understand that problems come and go throughout life. For younger folks without this experiential knowledge…whoa!
Each problem can seem life-ending. Art therapy’s about looking at the problems creatively, with clarity, exploring ourselves in relation to them, and solving or processing them in healthier ways.
10) Watercolors Don’t Stain
It took me a couple tables, a few hours scrubbing my carpet, and a fair amount of money before I realized water colors and colored pencils are better than acrylics and heavy markers. Truth be told, that’s one of the most amazing things about art – you can use just about anything.
The other thing I realized is that there’s only so much time in the day. My practice is already jam-packed with amazing families, so in order to help more folks I leveraged technology and am creating a series of online, video-based art therapy courses. If you’re interested, check out my first one for adolescents HERE.
Thanks for your time, and enjoy the art.
Dr. Yakov Sherk