Anxiety is on the rise in the teen landscape. The alarming rate of growth in this trend has been well documented (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html). Do you know a teen who is suffering from anxiety or depression? What can you do to help them?
As an art therapist and a marriage and family therapist, I have spent a few decades on the front lines of this crisis, working with teens suffering from anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, addiction etc. My encounters with teens in crisis have mostly occurred in inpatient psychiatric facilities following suicide attempts and other risky behavior. Observing the human race from this very unusual vantage point led me to begin asking two questions to the teens I encountered. I have now asked thousands of teens ( post crisis) the same two questions:
If you would have/could have communicated better with your loved ones about how you were truly feeling, would you have tried to kill yourself?
If you had more rules/structure/boundaries set up at home, would you have ended up in a psychiatric facility?
Almost every teen I have asked responded with a sheepish, “NO” to both questions, leading me to the conclusion that families, loved ones, schools, coaches, social pressures and the system all play a huge part in the crisis unfolding before our eyes. It is tempting to blame the child or teen for their situation, (especially when the standard procedure involves sending them away from their families to get “fixed” in inpatient facilities), often leaving them feeling tremendous shame in their extreme actions. When we can truly explore our system and our contribution to their situation, we often discover that extreme teen behavior is the symptom or reaction to an entire system out of whack.
Much of the current literature on teens and anxiety blame the post “helicopter parent” world, which has not let this generation have enough negative experiences to learn how to recover from small emotional injuries. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but the real question to sort out how to create resilient teens, and how to help them navigate through this world we have created for them.
The rise in smart phone technology to the teen experience has added an unprecedented new frontier to this unfolding anxiety crisis. Many of us have forgotten how quickly this technology has crept into our existence, and many adults are utterly shocked when they discover how of their child’s existence is wrapped up into their digital realities. As adults travel down the same path of being deeply connected to their devices, it is not surprising that our children are mimicking our behavior.
Art therapy is a form of therapy that offers families an opportunity to communicate their authentic feelings, and work toward healthier functioning as a whole system. Using simple visual art directives during therapy sessions, families who engage in therapy with trained art therapists often get straight to the point much, much faster than a typical talk therapy session.
Teens are notoriously cryptic communicators, contributing to the crisis in many families of simply having no idea of the level of emotional pain their child has endured. Offering your teen some time for honest, old-fashioned, screen free, communication is often the first step in creating a healthy place for your teen to open up.
Please explore the possibility of finding a time for some honest communication with your teen. If you find that your teen is experiencing something bigger than what you can handle, please consider seeking counseling for your family. If you need help in finding the best therapist to meet your needs, please contact me and I can assist in this journey. My art therapy practice is in the state of Kansas, but I can offer you assistance in locating a therapist wherever you live: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The art featured intros post was created by this blog author, Sherri Jacobs, and is part of a series of paper cuts entitled, “The Therapeutic Journey.”
Many Americans are suffering this week due to the unprecedented Super storm that ravaged the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. For those of us just watching horrific images on T.V., we might be feeling helpless and unsure of what to do. Studies show that images on T.V can also produce trauma, and for children, can cause feelings of uncertainty and fear. Children are usually the ones most affected psychologically in these situations. Although kids often appear resilient, some guided art making might aid in gauging their emotional status and give them an opportunity to express their feelings.
If you have access to some paper and a writing utensil, please ask your child to draw something relating to this recent storm. If you are reading this and really without any resources, it is also possible to make art outside using things around you including a stick and drawing in the dirt. Try not to guide them too much in rendering a perfect image. The goal here is the process, not the final product. Even stick figures can be a very powerful way to communicate a huge array of feelings. In art making, children need boundaries and the edges of the paper actually provide these boundaries, allowing them to safely place all of their emotions onto the paper. Art therapists often will draw in a border creating a boundary for them to safely make this art work. I would recommend doing this if you think your child needs some extra structure to complete this art project.
A very basic lesson in the latest neuro research on trauma reveals that incidents of trauma are stored in the right brain in images, and when one is asked to describe their trauma in words it is virtually impossible. Language, which is stored in the left brian, simply can’t access that information to explain thoughts and feelings connected to it. By transferring this trauma onto paper, this allows a person to suddenly have a place to begin that dialogue of addressing words and feelings related to the event. The sooner one can draw these images following a trauma, the less long term damage this can have on a child.
A goal in art therapy with children experiencing trauma is to give a child “ownership” over their feelings. By capturing the images in their head and putting them on paper and processing the events with a loved one or a professional, helps give ownership to the traumatic events they just witnessed. Another key to understanding children’s art is to ask open ended questions relating to the art, without assigning emotions and assuming an understanding of the images and symbols. A child might express anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, etc. It is important to allow them to express these feelings without censoring them as the express these emotions. This will make them feel validated and more likely to verbally express things they are feeling.
This dialogue with a loved one can have a profound impact, and open up channels of communication that might not be possible without the art as a tool to guide the discussion. The ultimate goal with art making and children suffering from trauma is to help a child re file that information into a part of their brain where the event is less visceral and immediate, allowing them to still recall the memory, but with less “fight or flight” reactions with the memory. Following this image up with another one relating to a future time when things will be calm and predictable might be helpful in setting goal for the future.
Art making is a very powerful tool to open this dialogue of what exactly happened in the past week, and you don’t need to wait for an art therapist or art professional to make this happen. If you do find that there are pervasive symptoms relating to trauma and your child is in need of counseling related to the after effects of Hurricane Sandy, please seek further assistance through the many organizations who will be providing these services in the coming weeks to the victims of this event. Art making as a way to cope with trauma can also be very powerful for adults as well.