Can the Expressive Arts Help Deter Teen Delinquency?

By Anna Green
Expressive arts can be a non-threatening way for teenagers to express their emotions and experiences.

Expressive arts, which may involve painting, sculpture, dance and music, can be a powerful therapeutic tool for teens. In addition to giving teens structured activity, the self-expression that comes from such artistic activities can provide emotional healing and a sense of community, two factors that the California Endowment for the Arts suggests can help prevent delinquency in at-risk teens. Although not a panacea for teen delinquency, expressive arts can be a powerful healing tool.

Expressive Arts Basics

Expressive arts for teens at risk of delinquency can be effective in both group and individual settings. Art therapies rely on image and symbolism, which many art therapists let the teenagers explain on their own. In expressive arts treatments, teens can draw or create symbols of their behavior. “When the negative behavior is illustrated, it is then external to the individual, and the behavior thus becomes the problem, not the individual,” explains Shirley Riley of the Phillips Graduate Institute. Thus, for teens who have been labeled as delinquents, expressive arts can help them redefine themselves as individuals who are more than the sum of their behaviors.

Individual Therapy

Expressive arts is a growing approach to psychotherapy that can be particularly effective with teens who are reluctant to work through their problems verbally. Teenagers often shun traditional talk therapy because they fear it might damage their standing with their peer group. Thus, expressive arts can be an alternative tool that allows teens to express their emotions in a way that feels less threatening than traditional talk-based psychotherapies. Additionally, licensed clinical social worker Don Phelps, Ph.D., explains that expressive arts therapies can help children find meaning in their negative life experiences. This can be particularly useful for children who display delinquent behaviors in response to trauma.

Strengthening Educational Communities

Expressive arts therapy can be particularly useful for troubled teens working together in group settings. It can encourage “group identity, group cohesion and cooperation,” explain Judy Sutherland, Gwenn Waldman and Carolyn Collins in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. Moreover, Sutherland, Waldman and Collins found that teenagers who participated in art therapy groups were more likely to feel connected to their school community and continue their education.

Personal Empowerment

Expressive arts can be useful for teenagers with delinquent behaviors because the process of creation can be empowering. Art therapist Patricia Isis explains that not only is art therapy non-threatening, it can also lead to expression and exploration of personal identity. These qualities can improve a teenager’s self-image, emphasize his strengths and create a therapeutic alliance that is cooperative and non-coercive -- essential qualities for building rapport with troubled teens who may be mistrusting of adult authority figures.

About the Author

Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.