Published in News To Friends @ HopeWest, Nov. 2019
The unique needs of adolescents and their development call for a variety of levels of creative, flexible and individualized support. This particular life stage is difficult enough for most adolescents with regard to identity, self-sufficiency, and independence. But, when a teen experiences a profound loss, their ideas about life are frequently shattered.
During this time, adolescents are searching for independence and focusing on relationships with their peers and less on their family. The primary developmental tasks of adolescence include: establishing individual identity, moving from concrete to abstract thinking, identifying meaningful moral standards, values and belief systems as well as developing increased autonomy. Although adolescents understand the concept of death, they have not learned that every major loss causes deep and life-altering changes in them.
Therefore, the death of a parent, family member, or friend can throw the teen into an unknown, lonely, and painful place. If this happens the teen may not know how or where they fit in anymore. For most teens, “fitting in” is very important and while working through grief, it is common to feel isolated and different. This dissonance is very uncomfortable. Feelings of helplessness, fear, anger, guilt, and vulnerability are common for teens that have lost a loved one.
Just as children have a tendency to regress while grieving; younger teens may revert to behaviors that they had previously outgrown and may search for a safer or less painful period in their development. Many older teens exhibit symptoms of grief that are similar to an adult, but may feel childlike on the inside. Teens may try to assume adult roles, even turning to and relying on peers for support while withdrawing from parents or other adults.
Coping with a major loss profoundly impacts teens and how they see themselves and their connectedness with the world. Teens may need to be given permission to grieve or be encouraged to take time for fun and pleasure. Allowing teens to fully express their feelings, including anger and hostility, and listening closely to their concerns and thoughts, is one of the best ways to support them through their grief.
HopeWest Kids includes aspects of support, including art therapy, that address the unique needs of teens. Art therapy is a form of communication that is accepted by adolescents; 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 feeling 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.Riley, S. (1999). Contemporary Art Therapy with Adolescents. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.