Adolescence is a time of change and transition; when the body is undergoing rapid physical development alongside deep emotional experiences. It can be exciting and fun, as well as confusing, unsettling, stressful and a bit scary at times – leading to powerful feelings which are sometimes hard to talk about or understand.
Young people are exploring their identity and starting to develop deeper friendships. There are lots of new experiences and possibilities. Gender identity, sexuality, sex, friendships, appearance, drugs and alcohol, school and education – all these aspects of a young persons life can take on a deeper significance.
Appearance can become important and that affects how a young person feels about themselves and others. Rapid physical and emotional changes can leave a young person feeling vulnerable and their needs might be misunderstood. They still need support but may appear to reject offers of help. Young people can start to look more towards peer friendships for support.
The ‘task’ of an adolescent is to separate from their parents and this is important in forming an independent identity. It can be a turbulent time as young people express their own views and ideas, identity and choices – and these might not be the same as their parents.
There are lots of new things to try out and explore, but little wider experience to fall back on or help make sense of what’s happening. One minute feeling confident and adult and the next feeling vulnerable and inexperienced perhaps doubting their ability to handle different aspects of their lives. Emotional confusion, unhappiness and distress can result.
Peers may have more influence and teenagers may be more likely to take advice or respect the views of older teenagers rather than parents – especially around key issues like drugs, alcohol and sex. Parents can start to seem out of touch especially if they are overly protective or focussed on risk.
Case and Dalley describe a young person’s need at this time for a containing adult with the capacity for thinking about emotions. Sometimes a parents capacity to do this is affected by their own unresolved adolescent difficulties. The privacy of a young person’s thoughts and feelings is of utmost importance as they need some space away from adults to get to grips with the huge changes taking place. They might also feel the need for a break from the pressures to grow up, to become an adult, to perform and achieve at school and other demands from adults who do not understand a young persons reality.
The Royal Society of Psychiatrists states that 4 out of 10 adolescents have at some time felt so miserable that they have cried and wanted to get away from everyone and everything… and more than 1 in 5 teenagers think so little of themselves that life does not seem worth living. In spite of these powerful feelings, depression may not be obvious to other people.
What does art therapy offer to young people?
Art therapists work with young people individually and in groups, in school settings, via Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), social services and in private practice. They aim to develop a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship with the young person they work with. In this context, internal conflicts which may arise during adolescence can be explored non-verbally through using art materials and making images or objects which helps to make sense of thoughts and feelings that are too painful to speak about.
Sometimes these confusing and painful thoughts and feelings are negated, repressed or are turned into impulsive of aggressive action against the self or others – ‘acting out’ through alcohol and substance misuse, mood swings, anorexia, cutting and other self harming behaviour including attempted suicide.
“The adolescent’s fear of being out of control as well as underlying fantasies and anxieties are embodied in the art work and brought into the therapeutic relationship” (Case and Dalley; 9).
Art therapy groups
A group can give young people a place to share difficult thoughts and feelings with peers without having to worry about being judged or how others might react. There are no expectations, no getting it right or ‘behaving well’. It’s a place where all feelings can be explored including those that at times might be more difficult to accept or show – like anger, jealousy or hopelessness. Being part of an art therapy group can help a young person to explore difference, feel less isolated and better understood. Young people may also develop their confidence and ability to trust others as well as begin to value their own feelings and experiences more.
Art therapy with young people with chronic illness
Having a serious medical condition involves a powerful sense of ‘not knowing’, and coming to terms with a diagnosis with new words and terms to try and understand and use is ongoing. Life can feel unpredictable and fragile. The context is one of potential dramatic change. Decisions are made by doctors which can leave families and young people in particular feeling a lack of control and anxieties may arise around knowing too much, having too much or too little notice or information about forthcoming operations or procedures for example.
Being part of an art therapy group can give young people a chance to discover and share similar experiences like life feeling out of control at times, having to repeat things over and over again, like hospital visits, injections and so on which can become boring and frustrating at times. Being in pain and feeling or looking different can sometimes lead to getting too much unwanted attention. Conversely not ‘looking ill’ on the outside can mean young people are not believed.
For teenagers with chronic illness art therapy can offer a chance to explore and share how they feel with others and to tell their story. Helping a young person to find their voice through art in this way can give them back a sense of control.
How we feel. An insight into the emotional world of teenagers, Jacki Gordon and Gillian Grant (eds) Jessica Kingsley.
Art therapy with children. From infancy to Adolescence, Caroline Case and Tessa Dalley (eds) Routledge, 2008.
Right Here Brighton and Hove
A support Guide for parents or carers who are wondering or concerned about a young person’s mental health or emotional well-being
Anna Freud Centre
Dedicated to children’s emotional wellbeing, helping young people with mental health problems, providing treatment for children and support for their parents. Resources aimed at young people can be found here:
and websites for young people
TheSite.org is the online guide to life for 16-25 year-olds in the UK. We provide non-judgmental support and information on everything from sex and exam stress to debt and drugs.
This site is aimed at you if you are having, or thinking about having, sex. It’s also for you if you are interested in sex, or want to think more about you, your identity and your relationships. So the content is suitable for over 14s (sometimes older).
Fight the pressure
Mental Health and Growing up Factsheet – Surviving adolescence – a toolkit for parents, teachers, young people and anyone who works with young people
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