NCFY Reports

Creative Coping: Using the Arts to Foster Youth Engagement and Resilience

A young man experiencing homelessness sang at his drop-in center’s talent show and got a boost of confidence for his audition at Berklee College of Music. A young woman says that picking the songs to play at her mother’s funeral helped her finally say goodbye.

Youth-serving organizations across the country rely on creative outlets like music and art to promote healing from trauma. The arts give teens a healthy way to express themselves and to process emotions like sadness, anger and fear. They also spark discussions about the skills and experiences youth need to pursue creative careers.

We spoke with three youth workers about how and why to make music and creativity an everyday part of trauma-informed programming.

Provide Easy Opportunities for Expression

At the drop-in center at Seattle’s YouthCare, music is a noticeable part of the culture. Young people can sit down at the center’s piano or pick up a communal guitar whenever they please. They can also ask staff for informal music lessons or sign up to perform at youth-led concerts.

Jill Palzkill Woelfer, a doctoral candidate at The University of Washington Information School, suggests that keeping fragile instruments out in the open and encouraging young clients to play demonstrates trust and makes teens feel more comfortable. 

Woelfer recently surveyed more than 200 youth in Seattle and Vancouver on the role of music in their lives as part of her dissertation research on homelessness, music and digital technology. Nearly all of the young people Woelfer spoke with found ways to listen to music daily—even when they couldn’t meet basic needs like food and shelter.

“Young people’s emotions with music can be quite deep and sort of visceral. Letting them express themselves with music in whatever way they feel comfortable is really powerful.” Agencies that provide a space for clients to hear or create music, she says, are giving youth a familiar tool for coping with difficult circumstances at their own pace.

At Boston’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, getting creative has been made easier for youth through a “Art Expressions” group that meets a few times a month to paint, draw and even make sculptures from discarded books. And attending the group has benefits beyond the artistic, helping some youth to feel more comfortable seeking advice from drop-in center counselors, says Transitional Day Program and Youth Shelter Team Leader Claire Winship.

“Creative activities help youth build trust and a sense of confidence,” says Winship. “Showing youth that they can still be themselves and do their anime or sketch their sketches is what builds rapport and gets them to come back” to the program.

Youth also bonded with staff and each other creating an entry for the 2013 Family and Youth Services Bureau mural contest, in which they won first place.

Connect Youth With Creative Mentors

In New York City, the Reciprocity Foundation channels creative passions even further, working with runaway and homeless youth to identify careers that make them feel energized and passionate—including creative fields like entertainment and fashion. Reciprocity staff match students to mentors and tools they need to pursue their career goals, such as editing software and sewing machines to create a portfolio.

Co-founder Adam Bucko says past students have gone on to work with fashion designers or to land work at television networks. He adds that helping youth discover their passions compels them to view their lives in the long-term despite the many obstacles they face in the present.

“Kids are often told to do something because it’s a good stepping stone, but they aren’t interested in stepping stones that aren’t connected to an end goal. If you’re a young person and you want to make something out of your life, being connected to a dream is what gives you energy.”

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