Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses art to diagnose and treat behavioral health disorders. Art therapy is effective for people of all ages. Still, it can be especially beneficial for treating children and teens due to the ability of art to convey thoughts and feelings without complex verbal exchanges and for teens without the stigmatizing associations of traditional therapy.
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy is a therapeutic modality that uses art as a medium to provide psychotherapy. Many therapists may employ creative approaches to use art in their practice. However, a licensed or Registered Art Therapist (ATR) receives specialized training in the modality. They must undergo internships, supervision, and credentials specific to the practice of art therapy.
Art therapy can take on two distinct but related forms, such as:
- Art used “in” traditional talk therapy as a complementary modality to enhance other therapeutic techniques.
- Art used “as” the therapy in which therapeutic processing is done through creative artistic expression as a primary means of service delivery.
Art used in therapeutic settings may include creating art as well as the practice of sharing, viewing, and appreciating art together. As with any therapeutic approach, the purpose of the therapy is to improve the client’s overall mental health.
The outcomes sought via art therapy depend upon the presenting problems but may include improvements in:
- Trauma Processing
- Physical Capabilities
- Emotion Management
- Cognitive Functioning
- Social Ability
Therapists can accomplish the goals of psychotherapy through a broad range of artistic mediums, including:
- Visual Art
- Creative Movement
- Expressive Writing
Additionally, art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that shares similar elements to traditional therapy, such as:
- Assessment for Disorders
- Rapport Building
- Treatment Planning
- Documentation of Progress
How Is Art Therapy Adapted for Children & Teens?
Art therapy helps treat children and teens by allowing the therapist to share a non-threatening experience with the client through artistic creation, appreciation, and expression. “Fundamental principles in AT for children and adolescents are that visual image-making is an important aspect of the natural emotional and social learning process… The presence of the art therapist can get in touch with feelings that otherwise cannot easily be expressed in words.”1
Therapeutic activities may look remarkably similar between all ages, but with younger generations, therapists may choose different visual mediums, such as:
- Acrylic Paints
- Paper Craft Materials
- Sand Trays
Techniques employed by the Art Therapist may be more directive or less directive depending on the therapeutic style and age group. What may change depending upon the stage of development of the client is the experiential element of discussing the symbols and meanings revealed in the art.
“We have the basic ability to dramatize our language and gesture…this ability arises in early childhood as a symbolic play and runs until maturity.”2
When adolescents can work with more sophisticated techniques using music, dance, dramatic arts, and journaling in Art Therapy, the type and complexity of the subject matter (lyrics, movements, or theatrical methods) will reflect the developmental stage of the client.
Common Art Therapy Techniques & Tools for Kids & Teens
Art Therapists often work with a specific age group or have preferred methods and modalities that represent their unique scope of practice. Some of the techniques used depend upon the setting of art therapy in hospitals, private practice, assertive community mental health, and school counseling.
Here are six standard art therapy techniques for kids and teens:
1. Art Therapy Assessments
Art Therapists may employ standardized assessments that any therapist would use, such as depression or anxiety screenings.
They may also use evaluations specific to Art Therapy, such as:
- Draw a Person
- Diagnostic Drawing Series
- Levick Emotional and Cognitive Art Therapy Assessment
2. Visual Art Techniques
These techniques can offer a glimpse into emotional schemas and help guide corrective emotional experiences. The client and the therapist discuss the choices of materials, colors selected, symbols used, the elements in the art, and the themes they want to explore.
Visual art techniques might include:
- Spontaneous Drawing
- Drawing a Family
3. Dramatic Techniques
Art therapists may guide the client through a psychodrama technique such as the “empty chair” or family sculpting. These techniques can help the therapist form a clinical picture of the disorder, help the client become more aware of emotional patterns, and provide an opportunity to develop emotional regulation.
4. Writing Techniques
Letter writing, journaling, and poetry can be used to spur post-traumatic growth and are standard therapeutic techniques. These techniques provide a safe container to express complicated feelings in constructive or corrective emotional experiences.
Therapists may give specific writing assignments such as:
- Describing an ideal day
- Practice expressing gratitude
- Exploring details of a dream or memory
5. Movement/Somatic Techniques
Dance and pantomime are standard movement techniques that allow for emotional expression, exploration, and the development of new behaviors.
6. Music Techniques
The appreciation or identification of music that elicits different mood states are among music techniques that can teach:
- Mindfulness skills
- Mood management
- Enhanced ability to express emotions.
These techniques can be practiced with drum circles, playing instruments together, and group listening as a way to use those skills in social settings.
What Is Art Therapy Used for In Children & Teens?
Art therapy techniques are used in various settings and are effective for many mood and behavioral disorders.
Chief complaints that make a child or adolescent a candidate for art therapy include such disorders or identified needs as:
- Medical Conditions like Cancer and TBI
- Family or Marriage Concerns
- Low Self Esteem
- Substance Use Disorders
- Eating Disorders
The recent popularity of coloring books, travelers’ notebooks, and Zentangle guides demonstrates that the creative process is calming or therapeutic for many people on an intuitive level. However, seeing an art therapist will give you the added involvement of experienced specialists who can plan treatment goals and interventions to reach meaningful outcomes.
Art Therapy for Conduct Disorders
Art therapy is a growing treatment for children with behavioral concerns and juvenile delinquency in Malaysia.3
Art therapy provides youth with conduct disorders means of:
- Healthy self-expression of sadness and regret
- Recovery from trauma and desire for affection
- Alternatives to avoid further criminal activity or violent acts of revenge
Studies of these practices in Malaysia unveil the universality of benefits of using art therapy among children who display conduct disorders. Art therapy can give their subjects healthy coping mechanisms as an alternative to acting out or retaliating when facing uncomfortable feelings.
Art Therapy for Depression
Depression is one of the most common forms of emotional dysregulation, ranging from mild to severely debilitating illnesses. The creation of art can increase the production of dopamine which can, in turn, raise one’s mood. The value of the creative process also involves anxiety reduction and self-discovery.
Art therapy techniques that require clients to describe and share their art aim to reduce depressive symptoms by:
- Providing an opportunity to express and observe their negative thoughts
- Exploring the hidden symbols and meaning in their artistic expressions
- Learning to accept their feelings by seeing them from new perspectives
Therapists can integrate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for depression with Art Therapy into a new modality called Cognitive Behavioral Art Therapy (CBAT). CBAT can help people suffering from depression develop flexible approaches to situations, understand their cognitions, and improve their ability to generate solutions.
Art Therapy for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are shown to be a severe illnesses and highly complex psychological conditions that can:
- Be challenging to treat uniformly
- Have relapses of depressive symptoms
- Present with severe and sometimes life-threatening medical complications
Sufferers of eating disorders develop patterns of secrecy and shame around their bodies. Art Therapists often have their clients create artistic masks to demonstrate the differentiation towards one’s sense of self that is seen by the world versus the self within. This exercise can be particularly effective with eating disorders allowing the client to explore their self-awareness through the lens of their “outer” and “inner” selves.
Therapists can also use drama, dance, and expressive musical experiences with particular care not to be used as an exercise for those with exercise addicition or for sufferers of anorexia. The intent is to help clients create healthy connections to their bodily sensations. Eating disorders can leave sufferers disconnected from themselves, leading to poor control of food intake.
Art Therapy Timeline for Children & Teens
Interventions depend upon the severity of the chief concern. Sessions are typically 50 minutes and are often weekly to build on progress. Planning for a 3-6 month timeline is a reasonable expectation. Completion of treatment depends on how an art therapist builds someone’s treatment plan, an individualized and collaborative process with goals that address the most distressing symptoms or concerns.
Art therapists might extend treatment plans until they feel the identified coping skills or improvements are acquired, indicating readiness for transition.
Examples of criteria needed for graduation from an art therapy program might be:
- Fewer feelings of worthlessness
- Overcoming hopelessness for depression sufferers
- An increased impetus to do activities
- Finding pleasure again in previously enjoyable activities
Is Art Therapy Effective for Treating Children & Teens?
Art Therapy can receive criticism for lack of clarity around its mechanisms of change in the brain. But there have been countless research results and meta-analyses to substantiate this modality’s evidence-based use in improving cognitive ability. A study published in 2021 in the Frontiers in Psychology noted that evidence seems to demonstrate that creative art therapies are effective, with more data to support this coming every day.4
An extensive Change Process Research, which studies the effectiveness of psychotherapies in making change, conducted a literature review of 77 studies specific to art, dance, drama, and music therapy. The authors concluded that the mental health benefits of art therapy come from its Adaptive Response Theory. The theory framework allows users to shift from maladaptive (like daydreaming) to adaptive responses by developing a new interpersonal and intrapersonal connection to the world they live.4
Art therapy’s effectiveness can also be seen in five case studies across three counties that documented the “ripple effect” of change. This effect benefits individuals in their relationships and communities, showing how the arts effectively create change in the world.5
The oversight of the profession enhances the quality of Art Therapy. The Accreditation Council for Art Therapy Education fosters communication among educators. It provides information regarding education standards in the trade, ensuring high-quality education to enhance the service provided by the professional. The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) confers and administers professional credentials to art therapists, which protects the public by promoting competent and ethical practitioners in the field.
How to Find an Art Therapist for Your Child/Teen
Families interested in working with an Art Therapist may find that their school guidance office or pediatrician has a list of recommendations. Alternatively, your insurance company may have a list of preferred providers. Additionally, using an online therapist directory may allow you to review the options and find a therapist on your own. Most therapists offer a consultation to help you choose a therapist that best fits your child’s needs.
At-Home Art Therapy Exercises for Kids & Teens
Families can borrow from successful art therapy techniques to help them have fun, connect with their children, recognize and process their emotions, and understand each other better.
Some art therapy exercises you can use at home with children include:
- Draw or paint your emotions: Bring out an array of painting and coloring supplies to draw or paint your emotions. Facilitate communication by asking about the symbols used, choice of color, or use of space. See if family members can guess what emotion the drawing represents. Expand this activity by drawing or painting the feelings about a piece of music.
- Journaling: Families can have fun creating a joint or individual journal using an inexpensive notebook or even making a journal as an art project. You can give journals particular themes such as gratitude, nature, or family travel journal. You can search journal prompts (such as those for anxiety) on the internet and even find them on youtube.
- Zentangle: This word is a technique of mindfully drawing within a small square. This technique’s endless variations can help children and teens learn to slow down, concentrate, breathe mindfully and be in the moment.