As Teen Retreat approaches again this year, we are thinking through and planning creative, meaningful interventions for the weekend.   The teens are usually open to working in a unique and creative way to cope with and commemorate their losses.  With a little encouragement, they are willing to use a creative approach during this meaningful, inspiring weekend.
     The creative process itself is healing and encourages a sense of integrity and autonomy.  For adolescents, finding autonomy and establishing identity are major developmental tasks.  Art making provides a “hands-on” exploration that supports the development of emerging positive identity.   Particularly, when teens lose a loved one, this task of establishing identity is challenged.  When they lose a parent, it can become complicated.
      It is difficult for me to imagine doing grief support work without art making.  Many of our experiences in loss are beyond words; they are difficult to describe or express verbally.  Art–making is meta-verbal; it gives teens a different kind of voice. 
     Art therapy is a form of communication that is accepted by adolescents.  Riley (1999) related that it is successful for many reasons.   The teen is in greater control of their communication; non-verbal communication is often more comfortable than putting ambivalent feelings to words.  The pleasure and newness of the activity and “speaking in their own voice” often reduces resistance to the therapeutic process.    Adolescence is a time of rapid change and artwork provides assessment and clarification of developmental stages.  The teen’s changes are often mirrored through their imagery.  When creating art, teens can problem solve “through the advantage of externalizing problems and taking a fresh view of them from a distance” (p.144).  Teens can experiment with a change symbolically on a creative project, before they make real–life changes.  
     In short, using art therapy these adolescents are able to:
       Learn to utilize art making for exploration and expression of experience.
       Increase knowledge of specific collage, painting and drawing techniques.
       Establish supportive peer relationships in a safe and creative atmosphere.
       Explore issues surrounding their loss.
       Create commemorative pieces that can be used as linking objects to their loved ones.
     Typical art directives in adolescent bereavement groups may include: collage work to illustrate the story of their loved one, creating a coat-of-arms to introduce themselves and their loved one to the group, or mask painting for identity exploration, externalizing the false self or to facilitate expression of feelings related to grief.
     An art–based intervention we will be using at Teen Retreat this year is an altered shoe project.   Participants will be invited to represent aspects of self by redesigning an everyday object – the shoe.  Through the creative process, we will explore the values and/or ideals of empathy and compassion for others by expressing responses to the phrases: ” walk in my shoes…” and ”…if I was in your shoes”.  The process of altering the shoe allows the teens to explore altered beliefs on a concrete and tangible level.  They can work on a sensory level with materials; they can process symbolically their experiences with grief and empathy as well as support and compassion.
     The process, like many others in art therapy, enhances perceptual acuity, sharpens cognitive skills, and facilitates sensory integration.  It activates our creative center.  When we give teens the opportunity to approach and work through their grief expressively, we allow them to work on a level that makes sense to them.  We acknowledge and support their grief in a way that can be understood on many levels and can be witnessed by others.
Riley, S. (1999).  Contemporary Art Therapy with Adolescents.   London, Jessica Kingsley     
     For more information on art therapy visit the American Art Therapy Association at, the Art Therapy association of Colorado at or ArtLight Therapy & Studios at


Original Content Source