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Art Therapy with Teens

by Lauren Fallat, MA LPC ATR-BC

In working with teens in a therapeutic setting, often it is important to validate the need for autonomy, independence, free-thinking, problem solving, and respect for one’s ability to make her/his/their own choices. For many individuals who are developing their own identities and beliefs about themselves and the world, there are many internal dilemmas and conflicting values that can prove it difficult to make sense of it all. To be a teenager is to be a human who has learned to understand the world through the lens of what they have seen, heard, and perceived- through the guidance and modeling of their primary caregivers, input and interactions with peers, cues from social media, images and roles portrayed in films and tv shows, as well as through their own unique life experiences and social interactions. Children and teenagers have developed ways to cope with their home environment as they learn from and gain input from the reactions and feedback provided by their surroundings and environments. These ways of coping may or may not be effective as they continue to develop and navigate through their academic and social lives as well as life paths (relationships, jobs and careers).

Often, teenagers will come to therapy of their own accord as they understand that it is difficult to manage intense emotions, they are struggling to perform in school, or they may be experiencing challenging interactions with their interpersonal relationships at home and/or at school. Teenagers also may come to therapy to process early childhood trauma, domestic violence that they are witnessing at home, feeling as if they do not belong in the social circles at home or at school, or are exploring their own sexual identities. Teens may be exploring their own gender identities or be questioning who they are and who they want to be, what feels right to them. Teenagers may be struggling to connect at home and often seek a therapeutic space to vent their frustrations and feelings of powerlessness, anger or sadness.

Art therapy provides a seamless interaction between the emotional needs of a teenager and the freedom and autonomy to express those needs in a way that is safe, protected and valid. Often it is important for teens to be able to make choices for themselves and experience the benefits of succeeding in making a decision- that means that we learn to devalue the importance of rigid expectations for outcomes and increase value in risk-taking, being courageous to try something new, experimenting and playing. Teens have so much pressure to perform at school, at home, to meet demands by teachers, coaches, mentors, parents and other groups that they are a part of. The art therapy space is one in which a teen can sit in silence if they choose and work on a project that they come up with. They can talk for as much or as little as they like. They will not be critiqued for how their art looks, but encouraged to continue following their instincts and developing their own visions for a drawing, a painting or a sculpture.

Often in working with teens, I like to introduce complex projects that may require multiple stages or steps, such as masking making, sketchbook projects, altered books, or mixed media sculptures. These projects offer a balance of structure, freedom, spontaneity and problem solving skills appropriate for this age level. Body outlines, self-portraits, and process painting are also powerful tools in working with teens to discuss challenging topics, such as shamel, self-esteem, self-worth, anger, sadness and insecurities in a safe and non-threatening way. The beauty of art therapy is that it can be adapted to the needs and moods of the individual and can be a way to regulate emotions, tolerate uncomfortable feelings and convert destructive impulses into constructive energy.

If you are interested in scheduling an art therapy appointment for your teenager, please schedule an appointment on the Holistic Health Counseling Center’s website at:

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