Evolve Adolescent Behavioral Health

Art Therapy for Anxious Teens

Most teen treatment centers offer art therapy as a supplemental treatment to traditional talk therapies like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This evidence-based treatment often benefits people with trauma – especially childhood trauma. Art is also a productive medium for opening up treatment-resistant teens. It can help them become more comfortable with the concept of therapy.

Jennifer Schulman, LMFT, ATR, registered art therapist and staff member at Evolve Treatment Centers in California, explains that art therapy is also amazing for teens with anxiety.

Specific Art Media Help Anxious Teens

“Anxiety often comes from the unknown,” Schulman explains. “When a client creates art, they are able to exert control, at first, through the mediums they choose and the creations they produce.”

Schulman says that when a client is highly anxious, a therapist might start out by using an art medium that’s more precise. For example, it’s much easier to draw with a pencil, with an eraser to correct mistakes, than painting with a brush and watercolors. Staying in control can help teens in the beginning and help make them more comfortable with the therapeutic process.

Later, as the process evolves, an art therapist and client might move to less controlled media. Pastels, finger-painting, clay, and other types of paint typically follow pencil drawing.

Working Through Mistakes

As a teen and therapist gradually move towards less controlled media, mistakes happen. And when they do, there’s no eraser.

The therapist’s role is to support the teen in working through and resolving the mistakes.

“When the client is creating something and it doesn’t turn out the way they want it to, the art therapist can help them fix it, or change it into something else,” Shulman says. “The therapist utilizes coping skills and problem-solving tools throughout the process. The teen is able to resolve what they need to resolve in the artwork, which can be a mirror to what’s going on in their own life.”

Art Therapy and Neuroscience

Art therapy, a kinesthetic activity that usually requires both hands, is a bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain. The left side controls logic and reason, and the right side controls emotion.

“When both sides of the brain are activated, it can help someone put words to emotion, or think linearly about something reactive,” Schulman says.

Talk therapy has its limitations, though. Especially for teens who experienced a trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, or any other kind of abuse. Talk therapy is also difficult with treatment-resistant teens.

That’s where art therapy comes in.

“It’s a circular route,” Schulman says. “But it can help them express what’s going on inside their head. In communicating through the metaphor of art, we travel the back road to the subconscious.”

In this way, art becomes an alternative language that helps teens express themselves. And art therapists know how to speak that language.


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