Bonnie Thomas LCSW is a school-based clinician, providing individual and family therapy to children aged
3 to 12.

Here she answers some questions about her new JKP book, Creative Expression Activities For Teens: Exploring Identity through Art, Craft and Journaling.

Tell us about your background, and how the book came about.

I am a child and family therapist – I have worked with youth and their families in one capacity or another for 20 years. My earlier work with youth included working in psychiatric hospitals; the juvenile justice system; a mentoring program for young women living in public housing; and working with homeless teens. For the past several years I have been counseling children and their families.

I wrote this book as an extension of my first book, Creative Coping Skills for Children: Emotional Support Through Arts and Crafts Activities. That book was geared at younger children and I wanted to continue the spectrum for creative work that can be employed with teens and young adults.

Why do teenagers have trouble communicating? What is it about creative expression that helps?

I wouldn’t say that teens have communication problems – my experience has been that they are more than willing to communicate if they trust the person, connect with the person, and have the means to do so. As adults it can be challenging for us to find that niche – the communication problem may be more on our end than theirs.

That being said, I feel it’s imperative that we provide as many of those opportunities as we can to help teens, and all youth, say what they need to say and be heard. Art is simply one of many tools to encourage that communication.

In my opinion there are many appeals to using art and art therapy as a medium for communicating with teens:

  1. The work is mostly metaphorical and symbolic which appeals to older youth and young adults.
  2. Art is a natural form of expression for people in general–sculptures, paintings, sand drawings, poetry, music etc…have been used to express the deepest aches and triumphs for the human spirit for thousands of years.
  3. Teens appear to have less access to the opportunity to create– I find they welcome the opportunity and resources to create something.
  4. It’s much easier for some youth to create a piece of art to express how they feel, than it is to sit in front of a therapist, or other adult, and talk about it. The issues and experiences the youth of today are complicated and laden with emotional layers that are difficult for even adults to express–art is one of many tools for communicating about these experiences.

How does does creative expression benefit teenagers?

Benefits can include:

  • expressing feelings safely
  • exploring the many facets of his or her identity
  • discovering what brings him/her joy
  • practicing how to use art as a coping intervention
  • building self confidence
  • expanding on his/her tools for communication

But anyone can benefit by telling their story and being heard, whether it’s through art, narrative, or other means of communication. This applies to all ages – children, teens, adults, and elders. Everyone has a story and all of these stories are sacred. There is healing and connection in telling these stories to someone who takes the time to listen. Art is a wonderful venue for telling these stories.

To give you an example, I have worked with moms and daughters who exchange journals where they ask each other questions and give each other creative assignments (i.e. “draw an imaginary friend you had when you were younger” or “create a self portrait”). Sometimes the mom and daughter have separate journals that they continuously swap…others have a single journal. But either way, I have seen some amazing connection occur when parents and children find creative ways to communicate.

The majority of the activities in the book are done ‘offline’. Is there something about expressing oneself through physical works that is important?

I think expressing oneself is important, period. I provide ideas for how to use art in expressive work with teens, because it’s something I enjoy doing and it’s a means of communication that works for me. Art does not work as a means for communication for everybody, so my ideas in this book are only going to help those who enjoy art and creative expression.

I chose the activities in this book based on trial and error from the work I have done–these are the activities that have been the most “fun” and the most useful to the youth I have worked with.

The final section of the book is for counselors who want to incorporate these ideas into treatment plans. How did this chapter come about, and why was it important to include it?

I provide trainings for other therapists about how to incorporate creative and expressive activities into the work they do with youth. The question always arises: “How do I incorporate these acitvities into actual treatment goals and objectives?” I am not sure how other countries pay for and fund counseling services, but in the U.S. there is a lot of pressure to get clients in and out of therapy as quickly as possible and it can be challenging for us to justify doing these activities unless they link directly back to the treatment plan and objectives. Therefore, the appendix is meant to provide some education and language for how to go about it.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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