NCFY Reports

Art Brings Healing to At-Risk Youth

A brand-new box of pastels. A set of wood-handled paintbrushes. A pad of heavy drawing paper. A tub of clay. A stack of magazines and a pair of scissors.

Jane Tillman, a mental health counselor and art therapist in Seattle, WA, believes that these materials can be as healing as any prescription or therapy session for young people exposed to violence and trauma. To her art supplies, she adds a quiet room, soothing music and a nonjudgmental attitude.

Tillman and others who use art in their work with at-risk youth say it has a profound effect, helping young people heal and gain a sense of well-being when adults – and words – have failed them.

“If they can’t tell you the awful things that have happened, they can at least draw it,” says Micala Gingrich-Gaylord, who directs the expressive arts center at Youthville, a child welfare and mental health services provider in Newton, KS. Plus, she says, “Art is a way to reframe those experiences and imagine something different.”

In addition, the sensory experience of making art can help soothe and relax traumatized youth, says Laura Seftel, coordinator of expressive arts therapy at the Northeast Center for Youth and Families. And she says group-made art – from drumming circles to drama – can teach young people a host of social skills, from making eye contact to working in a team, as well as giving them empowering ways to express themselves.

At a poetry slam, a young person can let out anger he’s kept bottled up. At an art exhibit or a chalk art festival, youth find an audience and a place to take a healthy risk.

“For the first time, people aren’t looking at them as kids in trouble,” Gingrich-Gaylord says. “They’re looking at them as artists.”

Tips for Using Art to Promote Healing and Well-being:

  • Use high quality supplies if you can get your hands on them, because having nice paints, brushes and other materials makes youth feel valued. Ask art supply and office supply stores to donate materials. Teach youth to clean paint brushes and store paints and solvents properly.
  • If you can’t get nice supplies, that’s OK. Use what you’ve got. Youth can draw using copier paper and ballpoint pens. They can paint a coffee pot or an old chair.
  • Work alongside youth, but not in a way that will outshine them or make them feel self-conscious.
  • If the youth is willing, talk about what you see in their work – the colors, the shapes, the texture – but don’t interpret or judge.
  • Offer a variety of arts: painting, drawing, poetry, fiction, drama, music, dance. Each appeals to different youth and offers a different means of expression. Invite local artists to share their expertise with youth.
  • If you have mental health counselors on your staff, work closely with them to make art a part of each youth’s treatment plan.
  • Give youth a venue to share their work with an audience, like a poetry slam or reading, an art show or a music recital.

Additional Resources:

American Art Therapy Association toolkit on using art therapy in work with children and youth (PDF, 570KB)

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