Art Therapy Mindfulness Teens

In this article we’ll talk a bit about why it’s important adolescents practice mindfulness and self-awareness, and how to build these strengths in their lives. Enjoy!



As adults, the idea of self-awareness may still be a little abstract, but we understand more about who we are and what propels us because our brains are more developed. We’ve become more accustomed to the ways of the world, and taken on much more responsibility.

Adolescents, on the other hand, struggle to define who and what they are, and with the process of maturing as well. At this stage the connections between mind, emotions, and body are still in flux.

Is it worthwhile to practice mindfulness throughout life? Yes.

But let’s look at how mindfulness can impact the growing and maturing adolescent brain.


A Neurodevelopmental Perspective of Mindfulness

Thanks to modern medical technology, we now know the prefrontal cortex goes through another period of rapid growth  just before puberty – it’s the part of the brain that controls planning, working memory, organization and mood modulation.

The brain over-builds synapses and neural connections (grey matter) during this period, then trims back between 13 and 18 years old. During these years the teenage brain is shrinking, consolidating, and pruning the extra synapses built before puberty to become more refined. It’s also why experiences and the decisions we make at this stage when the adolescent brain is a work in progress, impact us for the rest of our lives. (1)

So, it’s a “use it or lose it” phase of neural development to a certain degree.

If the teen is focusing on physical activities, then those are the parts of the brain that will survive the adolescent pruning stage. If they spend their time learning piano and studying language (although the ability to learn new languages begins declining at 12), then these connections will survive. A crude, but accurate summary of complex brain-science.


Mindfulness – What is It?

While there’s vast amounts of information dating back thousands of years on this term/concept, I especially enjoy the way Kabat-Zinn J. describes it in the bestselling book from the early 90’s, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.” (2)

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally…Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is.

By meditation, we’re referring to the practice of mindfulness, not necessarily sitting legs-crossed like Buddha with eyes closed and so on. Here in the west we used to approach this practice with skepticism, but now we understand it can enhance executive functioning and support prefrontal brain development in adolescents.

What does that mean?

Let’s grab a couple benefits from the extensive 2015 study, “Mindfulness training for adolescents: A neurodevelopmental perspective on investigating modifications in attention and emotion regulation using event-related brain potentials”  – Kevanne Louise Sanger and Dusana Dorjee. (3)

  • Mindfulness-based approaches can further strengthen SEL-like (social-emotional learning) programs, “Specifically in adolescents, brain areas of executive function—that is, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), where emotion regulation networks overlap with circuitry for attention control.
  • So, mindfulness-training, “…could also enable adolescents to manage excessive levels of negative emotions like anxiety, which interfere with working memory and attention and impact on well-being and academic performance.”
  • It helps us stay in the here and now, rather than our conceptions of our past and future – “Mindfulness can also encourage a present-moment experiential form of self-awareness (ESA), as opposed to the traditional narrative form (NSA).

I know, pretty dense, but then again, I’m a child psychiatrist so it’s my thing!

What all this means is that yes, practicing mindfulness in the adolescent stage can have tremendously positive impacts on emotional, intellectual, and psychological levels.  And, because of the “pruning stage” shall we say, the skill is something they’ll carry with them for life. The question for most parents is,

How do I get my teen to do this in practical terms?

There are many ways, and an increasing amount of mindfulness-related programs in schools around the country, but in my practice I love to employ art therapy.


Art Therapy as Mindfulness Practice

Art, for the creative teen, is what I like to call soft-stimuli. It’s not scattered or in HD. It’s not on a plasma screen. It’s not on their smartphone (although yes, they do have mindfulness apps if you can believe it).

It’s also done either alone, in small groups, with parents, or with professionals and art therapists like myself…away from the noise and pressures of peers. When engaged, the art is both therapeutic and a simple way to focus the attention.

  • We can invoke emotions, then pinpoint and analyze them.
  • We can look creatively at our thoughts.
  • We can unearth, or uncover, honest “self-reports” in a non-judgemental way.
  • We can safely investigate their values and what’s guiding them.
  • We learn how to solve problems in new ways.

For Diana A. Coholic, one of my favorite and widely-published authors on the subject, and one of the founding members of the ECHO research group, it’s about self-esteem and self-awareness in her approaches.

The goal of the holistic arts-based group and individual programs is the improvement of self-awareness, self-esteem and resilience, which we think of as the basic building blocks of good mental health and wellness. Self-esteem is vitally important for children’s healthy development and without it they are more likely to have difficulties with peers, to develop psychological problems, and to do poorly in school.” (4)

Over the last 5 or 6 years I’ve experienced firsthand how art therapy, when combined with mindfulness, can be an effective way for children to deal with and process a wide range of stresses. It gives them opportunities to strike a more stable balance between emotions, thoughts, and then of course reactions.

In my Online Art Course for Teens, “Process & Processing” we center in on their emotions and how to create, process, accept, regulate, and express them calmly. The videos are curated around specific art exercises that parents can do with their teens to open these doors and strengthen their relationships.


Example Exercise: A Tree

Everyone, no matter their level of artistic skills, can visualize and draw/paint a tree. It’s a simple and familiar part of nature that easily lends itself to the way we ourselves grow and mature, yet remain grounded in the present moment.

In this exercise I have children create a tree within the context of looking at their own lives, and then to witness and examine the thoughts and emotions that come to the surface
(without dwelling or giving them too much emphasis).

  • We can begin adding branches, and connecting them to the many parts of our own lives that develop over time – social groups, goals, family, etc.
  • We can use the exercise to delve into their inherent strengths, like trees have inherent strength from their roots.
  • We can artistically look at the importance of the connections between the mind (roots), body (trunk), and our lifestyles (surrounding environment).

The more we learn about ourselves, the better. In the adolescent years, our brains are optimizing based on how we use them. Whether the child has gone through dramatic trauma or not, learning to center the mind and dwell in the moment is invaluable. Art can be a safe, fun, and creative way to explore it while addressing obstacles.


Wrapping Up

Mindfulness training in the teenage years can be incredibly positive. There are endless art therapy exercises related to practicing mindfulness online, in books, in different schools, and so forth, and my video-based program is specifically designed for adolescents. Something to consider. Either way, I applaud your interest in using art to help your adolescent better-harness their lives. It’s important. And thanks for your time, cheers!




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