Meeting the Unique Needs of Adolescents in Play Therapy for Healing

Using expressive arts like a master therapist to empower your adolescent clients to engage deeply in the healing process.

Do you work with adolescents in the mental health field?

Then you probably know it can sometimes be challenging to find ways to fully engage them in deep healing because they’re still developing their ability to articulate themselves and explore deep emotional issues. (Heck not all adults can do this in the therapy process)

What are the developmental needs of adolescents in treatment?

Here’s what we know about adolescents. There are three key developmental tasks they’re working through. They are figuring out who they are as individuals separate from their parents and family. The question of “Who am I?” is a critical part of this developmental stage of their lives. This exploration can drive adolescents to explore various aspects of themselves. It can be a challenging time. Full of insecurities and self-doubt. Failure to successfully navigate this task can contribute to significant social-emotional challenges for teens. These challenges can cause problems well into adulthood if not resolved.

We know developmentally adolescents are learning how to navigate social and romantic relationships. They’re learning to understand themselves within these relationships. The questions they’re exploring are “Am I acceptable?” and “Am I lovable?” These questions have their roots in the quality of their primary attachment relationships. Adolescents with secure attachments will be able to navigate the challenges of peer and romantic relationships more successfully than their insecure peers. Relationships are challenging for anyone. Learning how to communicate, resolve conflict, and develop healthy interdependence are key for developing healthy relationships.

adolescent development, adolescent attachment style

They’re also looking toward the future and thinking about launching into young adulthood. They’re thinking about how they will become independent from their parents and begin to make their own way in the world. This is a huge transitional time in their lives as they move developmentally from dependence on parents to becoming their own person.

How do their mental health problems interfere with healthy development?

As child/adolescent mental health professionals and play therapists, we know adolescence begins around the age of 11 years old and progresses into early adulthood. Adolescents experiencing mental health challenges often struggle because they’re struggling with their beliefs about themselves, their beliefs about others, and their beliefs about relationships. These beliefs are rooted in the neuroscience and attachment concept of mentalization. Our primary attachment experiences influence the meaning we make about ourselves. These experiences also influence the meaning we make about the intentions, values, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors of others. These beliefs about ourselves and others influences our beliefs about relationships. Are relationships safe? Am I acceptable to others? Are people safe and trustworthy?

What does that mean? Think internal beliefs of shame, feelings of helplessness, guilt, feeling unworthy, feeling unloved and unacceptable, feeling incompetent. Consider these belief systems as the Core Beliefs of your adolescent clients that drive their ability to navigate whatever challenges and experiences life brings about. Your adolescent clients struggle with depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, anger, and wanting to give up on life. These are the adolescent clients who show up in your office or your treatment program.

How can you meet their unique needs in the treatment process?

How can you engage your young clients more deeply in the healing process in ways that are developmentally appropriate for them? You know from your graduate school Life Span and Human Development classes, socially, emotionally, and cognitively adolescents are still developing. This means traditional talk therapy is not usually the most helpful approach to help them fully engage in the change process. Traditional talk therapy that requires higher level cognitive abilities or behaviorally focused doesn’t help to get down to these Core Beliefs to create real, lasting change.

Expressive arts provide an amazing way to help your adolescent clients explore painful and disruptive core beliefs interfering with their ability to successfully navigate life’s ups and downs. You can use expressive arts to help your adolescent clients access the therapeutic powers of play. Play therapy is not just for children. You can help your adolescent clients use the deep healing elements of play to overcome their mental health difficulties by targeting those core beliefs interfering with healthy living.

expressive arts with adolescents, play therapy with adolescents

Expressive arts can access the unconscious, identify negative belief patterns, identify strengths, develop coping skills, facilitate communication and creative problem solving. These are only a few examples of the therapeutic powers of play that can be accessed using expressive arts.

Since expressive arts are incredibly powerful, you need to ground your techniques in a framework using theory and informed by research. Neuroscience and attachment theory provide the important framework to ensure you effectively and ethically guide your adolescent clients through the change process. Neuroscience and attachment theory provide the foundation for understanding the mind-body connection for emotion regulation and using strategies that are effective. Neuroscience and attachment provide a clinical lens to understand the roots of mental health challenges and negative core beliefs so you can successfully help your adolescent client to better understand themselves and live healthy lives.


  • Adolescents have unique developmental needs in treatment. Meeting these unique needs effectively is the key to helping them engage deeply in the change process.

  • When adolescents are unable to successfully resolve the developmental tasks of adolescents, this contributes to mental health challenges. These challenges are often rooted in their early experiences with primary attachment figures.

  • Accessing the therapeutic powers of play using expressive arts allows you to use expressive modalities to help your clients heal.

  • Grounding your expressive arts interventions in a neuroscience and attachment framework allows you to use this projective modality effectively.

Want to learn how to integrate expressive arts into your clinical work with adolescents? 

Check out this self-paced, online course - Expressive Arts in Play Therapy with Adolescents. This course is for child and adolescent therapists who are ready to take their skills to the next level using expressive arts so you can get amazing results for your clients. This self-paced course gives you the tools you need to facilitate deep healing for your adolescent clients. The modules include pre-recorded video lessons and activities with handouts you can use right away with clients. You can watch the videos in your own time zone when it’s convenient for your schedule. 

Want to know more? Click here for more information and to register: Yes! I want to know more!

Categories: Adolescents in Play Therapy, Art in Play Therapy