How Can Expressive Arts Therapies Engage Teens?

Teen sits at table, paintingI remember being a teen in counseling. I remember crossing my arms and sitting on the couch in silence for three sessions, listening to the therapist talk at me and ask questions. Eventually the provider conceded that he was probably not the right fit for me, and I was released from the requirement of attending counseling.

As with most teens, I was brought to therapy without choice. I was expected to divulge my internal processes to a stranger at a stage of life where I truly believed all I needed was to handle problems myself and get advice from friends I trusted.

This is a common scenario for teens; it is developmentally appropriate for people in this age range to pose some resistance to talking with a therapist. Maybe talking isn’t always the right answer for teens. Just outside the realm of talk-based therapies are the expressive arts therapies, which can engage teens utilizing their developmental needs and level of independence to address a variety of issues in counseling.

Teens in Therapy: Why Resistance Occurs

Youth ages 12 to 19 are in a unique stage of development: the “Who am I?” and “What can I become?” phase of life. Erikson labeled this stage identity versus role confusion, and it contains the primary tasks of self-discovery and launching independently into adulthood. During this time, teens experience both internal and external developmental transitions that reach all areas of life: social, emotional, relational, physical and in self-identity. It is in the stretch from middle school to after high school that teens pull away from dependence on adults and begin figuring things out for themselves.

Though an important process, this individuation can pose a natural challenge for teens entering counseling. Teens might appear resistant to talking with an adult and may not be inclined to seek help. Also, teens are generally not voluntary clients; they are brought in by caregivers, court, teachers, or other authority figures. And once in counseling, teens may view the provider as just another adult getting in the way of their attempts at autonomy.

Whether it is part of the resistance process or other factors, teens can also present patterns of overall denial of their current feelings and/or circumstances. When asked how they are feeling, a common response might be, “I’m fine” or “I don’t know”. Denial-based resistance shows up while counseling teens for many reasons, including:

  • Lack of trust in provider
  • Limited insight due to age and brain development
  • No perceived benefit for sharing and emotional avoidance

What Are the Expressive Arts Therapies?

The expressive arts therapies introduce action and imagination into counseling and psychotherapy (McNiff, 1981; Malchiodi, 2005). The “action” introduced can come from a variety of creative sources, including art, dance and movement, music, poetry and writing, drama, or any combination of these.

Used in conjunction with or apart from talk-based counseling, the expressive arts therapies offer teens a variety of ways to engage in counseling while meeting their developmental needs and honoring their ways of interacting with the world.

Used in conjunction with or apart from talk-based counseling, the expressive arts therapies offer teens a variety of ways to engage in counseling while meeting their developmental needs and honoring their ways of interacting with the world.

Expressive arts therapies are founded on the belief that engaging in creativity is not only healing, but provides avenues for processing feelings, solving problems, increasing insight, coping with emotions and thoughts, gaining self awareness, and connecting with others directly or indirectly. They focus on an integrative approach, working with and acknowledging all parts of a person: physical, social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual (Malchiodi, 2005). The expressive arts therapies are also accessible to all, requiring no formal arts training or experience.

Facilitated by specially trained, certified, and licensed therapists, the expressive arts therapies include:

How Expressive Arts Therapies Can Help Reach Teens

The expressive arts therapies are adaptable to all needs and age ranges but may be especially appropriate for teens due to their life stage. As teens experience changes as they grow, one of the main goals of expressive arts therapies is to assist with integration of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive aspects of being while offering support in coping and expressing feelings.

Additionally, the expressive arts therapies work in action-orientated modalities which invite the teen client to participate actively rather than passively. This is a contrast to traditional talk-based therapies—the teen will be offered the act of doing rather than listening to a therapist talk or being expected to answer questions for an hour. The action of completing something, whether it be art, music, dramatic action, or writing, can help a teen feel accomplished and empowered in a counseling session.

Engaging in the expressive arts therapies also speaks to teens biological need for independence. Expressive arts therapies can be done independently or with others. For teens seeking freedom to work through troubles without adult assistance, the expressive arts offer teens a compromise.

Working with art in therapy can give teens a safe distance from the therapist, especially in a newly established relationship. The chosen medium can act as a bridge between teen client and therapist and may allow the teen to reveal or communicate more thoughts and feelings in a way that feels safe. Because there is no wrong or right way to engage in expressive arts therapies, teens have autonomy to choose the amount of effort and engagement they put into the session.

Since teens have a newly developed capacity for abstract thought, working through the expressive arts may speak highly to this age range. Day-to-day communication for teens can include images, music, quotes, and personal expression through fashion and emojis. The expressive arts therapies are built on working in the creative space and utilizing metaphor to express feelings, problem solve, gain insight, and manage emotions. A teen may feel more connected to the work happening in therapy if it speaks to their daily experiences and ways of communicating with the world.

Lastly, expressive arts therapies offer a space for teens to learn skills, without overt teaching or instruction. While teens engage in processing feelings, exploring identity, and problem solving through the expressive arts, they are simultaneously learning self-regulation, emotional naming, self-awareness, and coping skills (and all without worksheets!).

The expressive arts therapies are highly adaptable forms of treatment that can meet the variety needs and symptoms presented by teens. Start here to search for an expressive arts therapist in your area.


  1. Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: Norton.
  2. Malchiodi, C. A. (2005). Expressive therapies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  3. McNiff, S. (1981). The arts and psychotherapy. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Melinda S. Malher-Moran, MA, LMHC, BC-DMT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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