If your teenager is having problems and considering seeking help, art and play therapy could be just what they need to work through their issues, especially if they are nervous or not much of a talker.
Art and play therapy uses tools such as image cards, painting, drawing, creative writing, craft and music to make counselling more meaningful and enjoyable for young people.
Katie Woolcott from ‘Inner West Art and Play Therapy‘ in Sydney describes their type of therapy as “creative counselling”, and says it is particularly well suited to adolescents.
Katie, why might you choose art and play therapy instead of the more common kind of talking based therapy for a teenager?
For most teenagers, talking about problems directly can seem hard and confronting, and they hate the idea. When there is a problem and parents or teachers know that the young person needs help, they might try forcing them to talk about it, and the young person refuses. Teenagers are usually more open to the idea of meeting with a therapist when they hear about confidentiality and are reassured that the therapist is not someone they already know or might see around the place like a school counsellor or family friend.
They are more receptive to coming to the first appointment and continuing to attend because we use fun activities instead of firing questions at them, and they don’t have to know how to explain how they are feeling. The activities help to break down the barriers that adolescents usually put up when asked direct questions – you know, the shrugs, grunts and even silence they give you when you ask about their day or what is bothering them.
“We use fun activities instead of firing questions at them, and they don’t have to know how to explain how they are feeling”
We’ve all heard the saying ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’; well, we use images, symbols and art with teens to tap into the emotional, right side of the brain. This means that therapy is generally more effective and can even be enjoyable!
What kind of therapy would you practice with a teenager at ‘Inner West Art and Play Therapy’?
Art and play approaches can easily be tailored to any age and are particularly good for adolescents. The first step would be to meet with the young person to hear about the difficulties they are having, and make a plan as to how we can help. If they are under 14 we would ask a parent to be present for at least part of the first appointment. If they are over 14 and they really don’t want a parent or carer involved, that’s OK, unless there are safety concerns.
The sessions are one-on-one with the young person, and we also liaise with parents, GPs and schools if the young person agrees this could help and they give us consent. We also address any problem behaviors or urgent needs with practical support and strategies at the very first session.
“I might ask a young person to tell me about their friends, and then to draw out more meaning I would ask them to choose some image cards that represent how they feel when they are with their friends”
We have a specially designed adolescent room brimming with art, craft, games and other items that we have chosen to encourage self expression and incorporate all the senses. Each young person is unique and their preferences will guide us to the kind of activities we do in sessions.
During the first few sessions we are really focusing on building a relationship and trust, and experimenting with different art and play mediums with them and getting their feedback about what they enjoy. So, for example, I might ask a young person to tell me about their friends, and then to draw out more meaning I would ask them to choose some image cards that represent how they feel when they are with their friends or some symbols to represent each friend.
I have lots of resources, so allowing the young person to choose is also part of how I customise the approach and listen carefully to what they tell me they like. We could then work on what the images bring up with an art activity or with talking, as the images are an excellent clue to what is going on emotionally for them.
“There are so many different creative ways we can structure a session; it could be making things, comics, poetry, relaxation”
There are so many different creative ways we can structure a session; it could be making things, comics, poetry, relaxation, really ANYTHING! – as long as it is linked to clinical goals and it is meaningful for the young person. That’s what I love most about my job, the unlimited possibilities; I change my approach and the select the techniques that meet the needs of each young person to get the best outcomes.
Teenagers don’t really like being pushed outside their comfort zone, and I can imagine many teens thinking that art and play therapy is uncool. How do you get past that?
Art and play therapy doesn’t push teenagers outside their comfort zone, it actually supports them within their comfort zone. It is a non-interpretative and non-confrontational approach which allows the young person to freely express themselves in therapy making for a more positive outcome. Because we are doing lots of practical, hands-on things in session, the skills and strategies we work on are much more transferable to home than just talking.
Some of my adolescent clients at ‘Inner West Art and Play Therapy’ prefer to tell people they go to ‘art therapy’ (strategically leaving off the play part) and actually their friends are envious of the chance to meet with someone who can help them to deal with all the pressure and emotions they are all going through in high school. So many young people these days have been to or are in some kind of therapy or coaching that it is becoming much more ‘normal’ to get help anyway.
Having said that, sometimes they feel stressed about how the adults in their life may react to hearing about their problems, which adds to the ‘uncool’ factor. So we make sure that we not only discuss confidentiality in the first appointment, we also have a written agreement we give to the young person to take home to read. This clarifies how their private information will be managed and can help lessen their anxiety. Generally speaking there is almost always some resistance at first, but this kind of approach is much more appealing than the other options and why wouldn’t you take the path of least resistance?
What if the teenager doesn’t want therapy, but they clearly need help?
Sometimes it just isn’t possible to convince teenagers that seeing a counsellor is a good idea. In this situation, we find that working with parents without their teenager present can still be very beneficial. Any person in the family that is motivated and would like help and ideas to support their teen will find it useful to meet with one of our therapists.
“Working with parents without their teenager present can still be very beneficial…it sends a strong message to your child that they are a priority”
Taking positive action and making changes as a parent sends a strong message to your child that they are a priority and you are willing to do whatever it takes to make things better. Seeing their parents leading by example and taking steps to face difficult issues is often enough to change a teenager’s mind about coming to therapy in their own time.
Parent sessions can be creative or more verbal depending on what you feel comfortable with. You don’t have to miss out; art and play techniques are great for parents and we tailor our approach to meet the needs of the client. We also see adults for their own therapy. We have mums that are doing their own individual work with less of a focus on parenting while their teen has their own sessions with another therapist. For some families we might recommend a parent-child program, with both of you in the session. If you aren’t sure what to do, give us a call and we can discuss your concerns, and how we might be able to help.
What kind of teenager does art and play therapy suit? What kind of problems is it a good fit for?
Anyone that is willing to give it a go! If there are problems at home, school or with friends it could be helpful to have an opportunity to hear what we think about the problems and our ideas about what could be helpful. We make sure that our recommendations are based on the problems or concerns that are most important to the young person, so that they feel their needs are heard and they have a say in therapy.
At ‘Inner West Art and Play Therapy’ we work with teenagers with emotional and behavioural problems like bullying, anxiety, depression and school stress, family problems, feeling down, self harm, getting in trouble a lot at home or at school, trauma or other mental health issues.
Because the approach is so flexible, the type of work I would do with a 13-year-old boy would be very different to sessions with an 18-year-old girl, and would be different again depending on the clinical issue or problems they are experiencing.
Does the teenager need to be good at art?
Not at all. It’s OK if they don’t even like art, and just play Xbox or are on their iPod every spare moment – that’s pretty normal actually. It’s up to us to find a way to engage them in therapy and to help them to build resilience and feel good about their life.
“Young people will often start to feel better from the very first appointment, as the burden of holding onto worries can be exhausting”
Even after one session, it’s not unusual that parents call to let us know that their teenager seems happier and lighter, or that they start a conversation with mum or dad about issues that they usually don’t want to talk about. Over time the changes can be more dramatic, their whole outlook on life can change, problem behaviors reduce or go away altogether, and eventually, they don’t need to come to see us at all.
What can teenagers expect from art and play therapy?
Generally speaking young people will start to feel better from the very first appointment, as the burden of holding onto worries can be exhausting. Almost everyone feels nervous about seeing a therapist for the first time, and they feel pretty relieved once they have met us, see the space and realise it’s actually a pretty nice place to come.
“We let them know that we can handle anything, no matter how hard it is to talk about”
We find that using art and play techniques allows young people to find new ways to express themselves and to overcome the problems they are having. We work with young people to figure out what kind of life they would like and help them to work towards it. Some sessions are harder than others, and young people might feel sad, angry, interested or happy in their appointment; we explore the good, the bad and the ugly. We let them know that we can handle anything, no matter how hard it is to talk about. We want them to feel safe and free to express themselves in their unique way, and to develop the skills and inner resources they need to enjoy adolescence and to grow into happy, healthy adults.
If you would like to know more about ‘Inner West Art and Play Therapy’ in Sydney, visit their website www.counsellingchildren.com.au or call Katie on (02) 9712 0405.
This is a sponsored post, selected for its relevance and interest to parents of teenagers.