Art Therapy for Adolescents

Adolescence typically occurs between ages 13 and 19, but it can occur earlier or later depending on the individual. During adolescence, you transition from childhood to adulthood. You experience a myriad of physical, emotional, sexual and psychological changes during this time. You tend to be overly concerned with how your peers react to you. Your self-esteem and self-value is based on how others perceive you versus how you see yourself. This is often a time of internal struggle. You want to be independent yet you also want your parents’ guidance, protection and support.

Adolescence can also be a time of intense psychological distress. Many times you cannot accurately interpret your feelings. All you know is that one moment you are happy and the next moment sad. One day you are excited and the next day overwhelmed. For the majority of adolescents, this “teenage angst” eventually goes away, but for some it lingers.

When you feel so overwhelmed, stressed, angry or depressed that it interferes with your daily functioning, academic progress, self-esteem and/or relationships then it is time to seek professional help. A therapist can help you work through the unresolved issues that prevent you from progressing into adulthood. Clinical art therapy is a form of therapy that is especially beneficial for adolescents suffering from psychological distress.


Adolescents often perceive clinical art therapy as a non-threatening form of treatment. Clinical art therapy is extremely valuable to the therapist because it gives him/her a glimpse into what is happening in your life. This type of therapy gives you an opportunity to express your true feelings through your art. Your pictures give the therapist an idea of your concerns, feelings, fears, beliefs and hopes. Life circumstances that are too painful or embarrassing to express in words are expressed through your artwork. Once your therapist has an understanding of what is really bothering you, he/she can help you work towards resolving those issues.

During art therapy, you are asked to draw a picture or series of pictures. After you have finished your art project, you therapist asks you if you would like to tell him/her more about the art and what it represents. Your therapist does not force you to share the meaning behind you artwork with him/her, but instead encourages you to talk about what inspired you. It is your decision whether or not to share your artwork with your therapist. There is never any pressure to talk about the meaning of the artwork with your therapist. You have freewill during your sessions with your art therapist.

This type of therapy helps you and your therapist better understand your issues and concerns. Art therapy is valuable because it not only helps you distance yourself from your problems; it also helps you understand your feelings and teaches you the skills you need to resolve your issues.

Benefits of Art Therapy:

Art therapy taps into your creativity and offers a form of communication that is non-threatening. It gives you the autonomy that you crave, but also offers support, guidance and structure. When you enter the art therapy room, you find drawing materials on a table. You are encouraged to draw the first thing that comes to your mind.

This easy-going approach to therapy immediately puts you at ease. Your therapist understands the importance of providing a variety of pastels, clay, paint and markers for your use. He/she understand that each resource is an important part of the therapeutic process.

You are probably relieved not to have a “traditional therapist” who is more interested in cross-examining you then reducing your stress level and getting to know you. Your therapist, on the other hand, appears to be truly interested in your opinions, ideas and/or beliefs as presented through your artwork. Once your therapist is able to interpret the meaning behind your artwork, he/she is able to help you develop effective solutions to your problems.

Child Abuse and Art Therapy:

Art therapy provides a way for you to communicate messages to your therapist that you are too fearful or embarrassed to verbalize. If you are being sexually abused, you have probably been threatened not to say anything to anyone or risk further harm to yourself or your loved ones. Fear paralyzes you and prevents you from telling people who can help you. Although you may have been threatened by your perpetrator not to tell, he/she has not told you not to draw what is happening to you. Therefore, art therapy gives you an opportunity to let your therapist know what is going on in your life by expressing the sexual abuse through your artwork.

Please note that a drawing is not an absolute admission of sexual abuse. It is important that your therapist refrain from making hasty assumptions based on your artwork. You artwork is an invitation to begin a verbal dialogue, but it cannot, solely based on your artwork, be indicative of sexual abuse.

Family Art Therapy:

Art therapy can help your family adjust to adolescence. Your family may experience difficulties adapting to your personality and behavior changes. In your family’s eyes, you have changed from their easy-going, agreeable, pleasant child into a moody, sassy and impulsive teenager. Your moodiness, opposition to authority and/or emotional distance can be quite disturbing at times. Your family may not be prepared for this rapidly changing parent-child relationship, which can cause family dysfunction.

Family art therapy provides the tools needed to effectively manage family conflicts in a safe environment. During family art therapy, your family is asked to draw pictures based on a life event that all of the family members participated in or witnessed. Once everyone has finished their drawings, each family member presents their artwork to the rest of the family. It becomes apparent, rather quickly, that each family member has a different perspective on that particular life experience. Each family member then discusses their individual artwork while the rest of the family actively listens.

The artwork helps to clarify conflicts within the family and it also prevents misunderstandings that can arise when therapy relies solely on words. Furthermore, art therapy not only gives your family an opportunity to get rid of old, dysfunctional beliefs of how your family is supposed to behave, it also teaches your family healthier ways to relate to one another.


Riley, S. (2001). Art therapy with adolescents. Western Journal of Medicine.

Rubin, J. A. (2005). Child art therapy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Wadeson, H. (2010). Art psychotherapy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


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