Creative Tools and Techniques Foster Resilience in Teens

An adolescent’s inner life often feels a bit like being in a command performance of an improvised play. Intense. Urgent. A work in progress out there for all to see. Teens are living expressions of the change process, with all its upheaval and uncertainty and sense of possibility. Because their development involves so much of the tension inherent to all life transitions, teens have a heightened need for a dynamic balance between stability and flexibility from the people and world around them, which makes them uniquely vulnerable when faced with loss. This article describes tools and techniques that help teens face and work through difficult emotions, develop healthy relationship skills, and enhance their resilience to negative effects of stress, using examples of two programs that serve the psychological, social and emotional needs of adolescents.

“Because they are already experiencing a shaky sense of self, grief and loss creates different challenges for teens than for any other age group,” states Laraine Gordon, LCSW, an actress and social worker who founded and directs Time For Teens, a not-for-profit organization based in Southampton, NY that offers a bereavement camp in the summer and creative workshops throughout the year, specifically designed for adolescents. The therapy groups that take up 2 1/2 hours each morning of the camp focus on connection through creativity. Improvisation exercises that are fun and engaging allow the teens to share aspects of themselves in a safe and structured way, which very quickly forges bonds as they discover the commonalities they share beyond the fact that all are dealing with significant losses.

The use of imagination and creative experiences to communicate the complexities of grief are especially effective with teens because the emotional immediacy matches their developmental needs, and these tools for self-awareness and self-expression are useful throughout the rest of their lives. Creativity is key, and the process is structured to sustain a flow of attention and energy, e.g. A morning warm-up began with an improvisation game that emphasized recognition of things the teens had learned about one another the day before, followed by a breathing and meditation exercise.

The group members had been instructed to have their journals handy and begin to write when they felt ready. The directive was to write a letter to the person they had lost, or write about their feelings that day if the letter was too difficult. From this the group went into role-plays in which each teen who chose to participate read their letter aloud, either to an empty chair facing them, to someone they chose to play the role of their lost loved one, or to the group. Sharing the letters lead to spontaneous role-plays, imagined conversations about regrets, fears, anger, confusion, and love.

Teens who gain the tools for managing grief and access to appropriate peer and adult relationships in which they can be themselves can learn to trust in the possibilities of life, a trust that is violated by loss too early in life. “Grief that is pushed down will surface eventually,” Ms. Gordon explains, “and there is a direct correlation between acting out behaviors such as drinking and drug use and the loss of a loved one. Utilizing creative techniques to help a teen express what they feel and to help explain the normal grief response helps promote emotional health. Psychodrama is an extremely helpful tool, because teens love to be dramatic and creative at the same time, and it does not feel so much like therapy to them.” And current research bears this out. A study published in the British Journal of Social Work found that engaging adolescents in an active, dynamic process of remembering and creatively constructing a relationship to the person they lost significantly contributed to identity development.

Social worker and singer/actress Staci Block uses improvisation with teens as an effective technique for creative communication about important issues as well as for development of a range of life skills with teens. She created and directs Reflections, a group of adolescent performers who present interactive shows on a range of social and educational issues, through the Division of Family Guidance in Bergen County, New Jersey. “The purpose of Reflections is two-fold,” Staci states, “to raise issues with audiences on topics which are significant to adolescents, and to have the teens in the cast learn more about themselves and the issues about which they present. Although this is not a treatment program, and all the cast members are volunteers, the teens experience a process that is therapeutic and unique.” Role-playing helps teens develop empathy and the ability to see situations from others’ perspectives, which are relationship skills not always accessible through family.

These programs allow teens to be themselves, with all their complex and contradictory emotional needs, probing looks at the world they are getting ready to take on as adults, and struggle for independence mixed with desire for guidance. Both emphasize creative experiences and group connections to maximize the healing and learning potential for adolescents. Ms. Gordon believes that resiliency is enhanced when we “give teens outlets where they can show individuality. Give them the ability to feel really good about themselves and to know that it is okay to laugh and have fun after a loss.

Creativity gives them the outlet that is not typically provided them in their daily lives. They can begin to recognize what they are passionate about, find another perspective about concepts or perceptions they held about themselves. Through the improvised scenes, the teens get a crash course in role-training. Through the range of issues explored in Reflections’ presentations, the teens “experience situations that they may not have encountered yet in their lives. By having the chance to work through the situation in a drama, it often helps them to prepare for what they would actually do if the situation were to occur. If the situation is something the teens has already experienced, the drama can help them perhaps see it in a different way.”

Resiliency is a core psychological strength for coping with change, loss, and destabilizing events. Creative techniques that foster self-expression, self-awareness and supportive social networks enhance resiliency in ways that teens can continue apply to challenges over the course of their lives.

Coping With Grief at Different Ages

Age makes a tremendous difference in how grief affects us. Understanding how grief manifests in people differently at various stages in their lives can help you determine how best to reach out and provide the help that is needed.

Coping strategies vary drastically depending on the child’s developmental stage.

Infants (0 to 3)
Children this young are not yet able to understand death. However, they can sense feelings of grief in the adults around them, and they may imitate or soak up those emotions. Babies can also react to the loss of a caregiver with increased crying, listlessness, and changes in sleeping and eating habits. Young children may revisit the experience later as they go through different developmental stages.

Young children (3 to 6)
At this age, children may become curious about death, but they still aren’t able to understand it as final. They may internalize it, believing they caused the death by misbehaving. Regression, or returning to younger behavior like bedwetting and baby talk, is common, as is fear of abandonment.

School-aged children (6 to 12)
These children are old enough to understand the finality of death, but they may not be able to put their emotions into words. Instead, some school-aged children complain of stomachaches or other physical ailments. They are also highly interested in the biological aspects of death and may ask a lot of questions.

Although they are between childhood and adulthood, teenagers have the same capacity for understanding grief as adults. This can cause confusion about how to react – whether to exhibit sadness and emotional neediness like a child, or act brave and strong like an adult. Many teenagers fear appearing weak or childish, so they may be reluctant to ask adults or peers for help.

As a result, many teenagers try to bottle up their feelings instead of airing them. Additionally, grief can cause teenagers to struggle with their own feelings of invincibility. The death of a loved one may also cause them to question their spiritual beliefs and their understanding of the world.

Adults who are coping with grief tend to re-evaluate their lives, look for meaning in the world, and contemplate their own deaths. Some adults will manage their grief by preoccupying themselves, while others may temporarily lose their ability to function.

Normal symptoms of grief, such as irritability, restlessness, changes in personality, and numbness or sadness, tend to lessen in about six months, although the entire grieving process can go on for two or more years.

Grief manifests a bit differently in the elderly than it does in the middle-aged. At this time in their lives, the elderly are no longer focused on looking forward to future milestones, but are spending much more of their attention reflecting on the past.

With age, the number of deaths in a person’s life increases, and facing these multiple losses in a brief period can be overwhelming. In many cases, the elderly are already dealing with losing their occupation, familiar home environment, and physical and possibly mental capacity. Sometimes, older people may become so overwhelmed they find themselves unable to grieve.

Regardless of age, grief is something that must be worked through. There is no way to speed up the process, but having a healthy support network can make a huge difference.

~Nicole Krueger, 2009

Where to Find Help When Mourning the Death of a Loved One