Why teens and art therapy are a perfect match

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Teens often get a bad rap for their impulsiveness, intensity, and self-centered way of looking at the world.  As a mom of two teens, I totally get it and admit I am not always successful at conjuring up compassion for my own teen, particularly in a heated moment of frustration.  I've definitely scratched my head at how my senior can ace a college level astronomy test and continue to forget what I asked her to do just minutes ago.  However, what I have come to learn is if I don’t take a step back from time to time, our entire relationship can become about what she is NOT doing rather than celebrating the achievements and uniqueness that is my daughter. In a weird way, I think that is why I love working with other people's teens!!  It helps me remember what is at play within my own family ultimately helping me see everything though a much softer lens.

So today I'd like to share with you as a mom, an art therapist, and a counselor what helps keep me grounded as a parent and feeling compassionate toward my teen’s more frustrating behaviors.

Where did my sweet child go?  Did he grow over night?

Understanding physical changes in teens:  Physically, teens are moving through tremendous changes.  While it may have been safe to wrestle and horseplay with your son when he was 10, suddenly, at 14, a knock to the face may leave permanent damage!  With this new strength, teens are drawn to push physical limits and often will seek out risky situations.   In fact, this is how connections are made in the brain so it is important to allow this pushing of physical limits but to try and help them channel it into safe activities.

Teens are also maturing into sexual beings, figuring out who they are, who they are in relationship to others, and who they are attracted to in terms of romantic partners.  For some teens, this is a fairly linear path of discovery while others find themselves less sure and even confused about their sexuality.  Teens need to feel supported and should be allowed to explore their sexuality in a safe way.  All sexual development paths, whether straight, gay, queer, bi or questioning/changing gender identity, can lead to a healthy, well-adjusted young adult who loves and accepts themselves.  However, for those teens who feel less than supported or are experiencing discrimination and bullying due to their sexual identity or preference, extra support is sometimes necessary.  

Why did they do that?

Brain differences and cognitive maturation:  It is so important to continually remind ourselves that our teens are not miniature adults.  Their brains are still developing critical connections which we as adult sometimes take for granted.  For example, the amygdala, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain, is responsible for protecting us from dangers as well as our fight, flight, freeze responses.  It senses things in our environment and allows us to respond quickly to any and all threats.  It is also responsible for passion and aggression.  In a normal adult, the amygdala works seamlessly with the pre-frontal cortex to sort of “check” the messages and only respond to real threats and to “think through” the messages.  In a teen, the pre-frontal cortex is the last area of the brain to connect up and come online so to speak, so they are not able to as easily filter these strong, instinctual messages, hence the impulsiveness you see sometimes.

Another major difference is found in the limbic or emotional center of the brain.  In teens this area is very active and again without the fully developed rational prefrontal cortex to assist in filtering emotionally charged messages, teens not only feel things more intensely than adults but often find it difficult to think before reacting to an emotion.   

[for more information on this and to view a detailed image of the teenage brain watch the webinar by requesting the link below]

She HATES me!

Social changes and the pain of individuation:  Another major shift that occurs during adolescence is the gradual move toward independence.  I’ll never forget the day my daughter came home from 8th grade history class and exclaimed “we learned about different forms of authority in government today and you and dad are total dictators!”.  And on some levels she was absolutely right.  We ended up having a wonderful conversation about how young children depend on parents to do everything for them but as they move toward adulthood parents shift from dictators to running a more democratic household.  We spoke about how independence is earned through trust and respect between parent and teen, with the teen continuing to demonstrate they are able to make good decisions and handle such freedom.

But truly, this is a very painful process at times.  Letting go and allowing our teens to become independent sometimes feels like complete abandonment as a parent.  We once held a very different position in their lives and we must allow them to find out who they are and how the world works without our constant interference and opinions.  We need them to develop a social network outside of the family while of course still remaining involved and connected in a very different way. This is where positive peer groups can really be supportive as well as comforting to parents.

How on earth can making art help any of this?

Art therapy and teens:  So what does any of this have to do with creative expression and specifically art therapy?  Due to the above physical, social/emotional, and cognitive changes happening at this time of life, verbal communication can also be difficult.  Many teens I work with not only have problems identifying different emotions but then struggle to verbally communicate the needs under those emotions (also known as strong currents of energy coming from their overactive limbic system)!  

Enter art.  Art-making, especially with a trained art therapist, can allow for the non-verbal exploration and expression of a teen’s inner world.  Through the art, themes, symbols, and patterns can be explored and insights can organically emerge through the creative process. Teens can project onto their art what is needed and felt which can often alleviate the pressure of having to “think” and "talk" about it.  Art is also tangible, concrete, and permanent allowing teens to look back and remember not only moments in time when they may have been struggling but also what they learned and how they have grown.  Powerful stuff!!!

Power of Peers

How group therapy takes it a step further:  Group art therapy takes this perfect match a step further by playing off the developmental need all teens have for peer connection.  Developing positive social connection is critical all through life but can be especially important to teens who may be experiencing loneliness, feeling misunderstood, unseen or invisible.  Art therapy groups can not only provide teens with the opportunity for creative expression but also the support they are truly longing for from other teens who get it, who understand what they are going through in life.  Hearing how other teens are using the coping skills learned in group and witnessing peers getting stronger only serves to strengthen overall therapeutic goals for all group members.  I’ve even witnessed two teens from opposing gangs learn how to connect through their art, sharing stories of pain, survival, and even beauty.

So hats off to you parents of teens!  It is quite the task for you and your teen to successfully navigate all these amazing, confusing, and exciting changes!  Just remember to step back every now and again and find ways to lift them up.  Even if it is the tiniest thing, end every day with one thing they did right or well that day.  And don't forget to be gentle with yourself! After all, we are all a work in progress!

P.S.  If you found this brief article helpful and would like to dive deeper, you may really enjoy the full webinar I just released! It’s free and I’m happy to send you the link.  Just pop in your name and email below for access.

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P.P.S.  Teen Art Therapy Groups start on November 20th and are now enrolling.  If you think your teen would benefit from group art therapy and would like more information about the possibilities, visit www.trulyconnectedcounseling.com/groups.

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Jody Pittner, ATR, LPC

Teen Therapist and Owner of Truly Connected Counseling and Art Therapy