-by Malissa Morrell, Director
When I started art therapy graduate school, I had no intention of ever treating children or teenagers. In fact, I would have probably said that I “refused” to consider providing art therapy to children.
I even announced this to one of my professors on the first day of class. “I’m taking this Adolescent Art Therapy course because I need it to graduate. That’s the only reason. I will never work with teenagers — they are all ticking time bombs and I have no interest in diving into that mess.” (I have since had a good laugh about that memory with the professor, since teenagers have become one of my favorite specialties!)
Why I feel passionately about this
It’s not that I dislike kids, or that I pointedly avoid teenagers in my day-to-day life. On the contrary, I grew up in a huge family and a very kid-friendly culture. I babysat, nannied, and even enjoyed teaching kids at my church. No, I think that this poor attitude was due to a character flaw, which I have since reshaped so it can work to my advantage — the desire not to be ordinary. I don’t like to be cookie-cutter, predictable, or expected. I’m not very good at following the herd, and yet most of what I had heard about art therapy was that it would be good for kids.
You might think I am exaggerating, but I would say that, even now, over 80% of the people I speak to about art therapy on a day-to-day basis respond with some variation of the phrase: “That sounds great for kids!”
But art and creativity had been integral in helping me resolve my own personal issues — and it had done so when I was over the age of 25. I had never taken a single art class, but I was still able to use the creative process to effectively end the depression that had seeped into my young adulthood. Because of this, I felt passionately about bringing the healing power of art to grown-ups like myself. I wanted to re-connect adults with the wise, creative part of themselves that holds answers, solutions, and healing.
So, I entered graduate school committed to bringing the magic of art therapy to adults, and I felt comfortable that I could leave the working with children to my colleagues.
Art therapy is for everyone
The trick of it is this: art therapy is great for kids. Up until the age of about 11, the majority of children naturally find great delight in the artistic process. After that point, most young brains develop the self-awareness to become self-critical. After that point, art becomes less of a joy and more of a chore. Without the skills to perfectly translate what you see into what comes out on paper, the majority of us simply give up on art and proclaim that we are “just not artists.”
So, yes. Tapping into this natural creative language makes a lot of sense for children, because it’s so easy and natural to them. They aren’t self-critical (yet), and they can access the power of art to communicate those things which are difficult to put into words.
But as you grow and your vocabulary improves, it becomes easier to communicate by talking than by drawing. Easier, yes, but not necessarily better. Emotions, trauma, defenses, and other important mental processes are very distant from our brain’s verbal centers, and although we can learn to use language to communicate about them, it’s not a natural process. There are all kinds of experiences and feelings that don’t have words.
And this is why I love to bring art therapy to adults.
Why adults really benefit from art therapy
When adults allow themselves to confront their self-criticism, to push through their perfectionism, and to put themselves out of their verbal comfort zone in the name of growth and healing, the magic of art therapy can really take effect. Many of my adult clients have tried traditional or “talk” therapies for many years, with limited success. But to combine the verbal with the non-verbal processes, as we do in art therapy, opens important emotional doors and creates pathways for the change that people desire.
I’ll be honest — for most adults, it’s a little uncomfortable in the beginning. But, the more you are able to let go of your fears and anxieties in a safe and supportive environment, the more deeply you can express and explore your internal experience. That is the goal. That is why art therapy is so powerful for adults. Not only does art therapy allow you to express the un-expressable (just as it does for children), but it also helps you to push through those defenses and processes that hold you back in other areas of your life as well. The more comfortable you get outside of your comfort zone, the more the world opens up to you. The more you allow those wordless emotions, memories, and fears to surface, the more your heart and mind can tolerate them.