Youth, Identity and Art Therapy: How your stories shape who you think you are

Art therapy is a dynamic and experiential form of psychotherapy that fosters phenomenological, humanistic and existential characteristics. In a nut shell this implies that moments or events in our past or present human experience can contain important knowledge about how we live and think about our lives. The arts alongside a strong therapeutic alliance can be used to inquirer into these moments in order to explore hopes, relationships, traumas, values and identity, through art modalities such as painting, drawing, drama and sand play for example. It is a direct but gentle process that acknowledges our story so that it can be felt, known and integrated into day to day life. This inquiry will identify significant personal themes and help us understand how these might play out. Decisions about these ways of being can then be made using the diverse perspectives that the arts offer us. In addition, the act of projecting the inner world out, can provide safety as it creates a physical distance between oneself and the expression made. This can be revealing and comforting as one connects with their story as it comes to life on the paper.

For youth, art therapy can be a powerful way to communicate thoughts and feelings of things that aren’t quite known yet or stories that are hard to put words to. In particular, the development of identity albeit an exciting time, can also be a confusing, challenging and complicated experience that can increase stress, anxiety and depression in young people. The ability to start to create personal narratives from past experience emerges in early adolescence and is therefore also the stage at which identity formation is initiated. Identity is who we think we are and how we present ourselves to others and can be broken down into many parts including cultural, gender, sexual, social, group and personal identity. In turn, our identity will significantly impact our values, behaviours, thoughts, emotions and how we experience our worlds. Our lived stories and how we remember and perceive them play a fundamental role in how we construct identity, they provide us with the information, or schemas that we can then build our sense of self upon.

For young people who are experimenting with this developmental hurdle, art therapy can play a significant role in that it can offer opportunities to explore different ways of ‘trying on’ these stories about self. For example, a fourteen-year-old girl who is struggling with sexual identity might paint a series of images depicting different relationships in her life and then explore the thoughts and feelings that become known from each one. Or, a young man is able to investigate through clay sculpture and storytelling how an early trauma is now playing out in his personal identity, how this is being presented through his behaviour and recognise different ways of being with his experience. The arts offer us honest and non- judgemental responses to our questions and concerns and in turn, empowers artists to initiate their own positive change through their lines, marks and gestures. This will, in conclusion, offer adolescent’s autonomy and confidence at a time when they need it the most.

I will be available at Mullum Road Psychology to companion individuals in inquires like these from 2020, alongside my therapy dog Timber who will also be present to provide care and support. No prior experience in art making is necessary to participate in art therapy.