Creative Ways to Help Teens Manage Difficult Emotions

By Rayne Lacko and Lesley Holmes, coauthors of Dream Up Now: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery

Creative Ways to Help Teens Manage Difficult EmotionsYoung people have never had more forms of communication and media for expressing feelings, rates of helplessness, anxiety, and depression. Teens are struggling to understand and manage emotions, and creativity is their innate language. There exists an engaging and effective method for managing fluctuating teen emotions that has been proven in countless studies, and anyone can use it: the arts.

Creating space for teens to express themselves using their inherent creativity is a proven method to relieve stress and significantly decrease anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts—while helping improve young people’s interest in school and overall happiness.

The arts and creativity can have a positive influence on everyone. Sometimes one student or a small group of students can create a hostile or challenging environment for others. When a group of young people changes for the better, the results can be equally as profound for other students as well.

Teens who have something to say but who feel powerless or angry might express their feelings with destructive behavior. Creative expression gives young people the freedom to create something that represents a portion of their inner world. Doing engaging and creative activities can help teens take control of sometimes wild emotions, and the result is a happier, more efficient, and joyful life. And those results are contagious.

Creative Activities for Everyone

Creativity comes in many forms. We believe that everyone is an artist. Following are some activities you can use with any teen.

Breathing. It’s the most natural practice, but teens don’t always stop to consider its calming power. Mindfully breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety, assist in pain relief, and decrease negative thinking by anchoring the body in the present moment and allowing the mind to let go of worry about the past or the future. When teens seems as if they are starting to spiral, help by leading them through this simple breathing exercise:

  • Pause a moment to take a deep breath.
  • Close your eyes and take another deep breath, and another.
  • Notice your shoulders. Are they tight, up near your ears, or relaxed?
  • Gently roll your shoulders back-and-forth through a few more breaths.
  • Notice your chest opening up. Imagining fresh oxygen soothing your brain and your body’s cells will help you feel refreshed, clear-headed, and less stressed.

Singing. According to Dream Up Now contributor and board-certified music therapist Stacie Shewmake, “It is impossible to be sad when you are singing.” When a teen’s feelings are getting to be too much, encourage them to crank up the music and sing along to a selection of songs that best matches their current mood.

Organizing your thoughts. In today’s busy world, teens can become stressed by chaotic, disorganized thoughts. Here’s a proven technique that can help teens make sense of everything they might be juggling:

  • Write down all the thoughts that are going through your mind.
  • Draw a vertical rectangle and divide it into three sections.
  • Put the thoughts needing immediate attention in the top section.
  • Put the thoughts that could be dealt with in two hours in the middle.
  • Put the thoughts that could be dealt with tomorrow at the bottom.
  • Break down anything that seems like a monumental task into small, manageable steps.

A teen’s good efforts are contagious. When a previously disorganized young person starts handing in schoolwork on time or gains more self-control, their confidence builds with each accomplished task and others notice—creating a positive influence.

Effectively Shift Your Teen Community from Darkness into Light

What’s become clear is that “problem behavior” tends to occur when a young person refuses to speak their heart and mind. Poor choices and destructive acting out take the place of unexpressed pain. When a teen is given an opportunity to shine a light on their feelings, to discover the words or images to articulate pain, trauma, disappointment, or fear, it relieves these feelings of their power. Expressing a challenging feeling with words, visual images, or movement relieves pain and helps a person take inventory on their strengths, pinpoint their talents, and create a concrete plan for directing their days toward the completion of a heartfelt goal. Teens desire this power. Each person has an individual approach to self-expression, so it’s important to offer a mix of creative opportunities. These expressions may take the form of:

Dancing. Moving the body rhythmically brings energy and oxygen to cells and positively influences a teen’s overall mood. Studies show that dancing improves mental and emotional health by reducing stress, decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and boosting self-esteem. Dancing can even help young people in school because rhythmic movement ignites areas of the brain that control memory, and skills such as planning and organizing improve with exercise like dance. Even better, dance allows teens to get their energy out, and it’s a great—and often safe—way for them to express themselves.

Journaling. Journaling is a personal expression that can prove to be self-healing. Teens can journal and express themselves creatively with a pen or keyboard, or by using the notes app on a smartphone. An easy way to use writing to express feelings is to address a journal entry to someone, perhaps as a message the teen never needs to send. If a young person is angry about a situation, invite them to write about the specific event that led to the feeling. Before finishing their journal entry, ask them to add something kind about themself, recognizing that they have shared and expressed their feelings honestly and taken a step toward feeling better.

Drawing or collage. Visual images can be powerful representations of what is going on inside for a young person—particularly those teens who are not drawn to creative writing or who struggle with emotional vocabulary. Teens often have fond memories of their more peaceful grade school years, doing fun activities like cutting and pasting or drawing simply for the fun of it—without concern about the end result. Equipping a teen with a pencil and sketchbook can offer powerful healing. Similarly, it can be valuable to encourage a teen to create a vision board or bucket list by cutting images from magazines or printed from online photos and arranging and gluing them artfully to create a collage.

Making Art Helps Teens Realize What’s Going on Inside

Making art and mindfully creating the kind of life a young person desires builds authenticity. When a teen is honest about who they are, they naturally attract their kind of people. Sharing one’s art helps a young person learn the lifelong skill of opening themselves to others and establishing trust, a solid start for any relationship. Every teen has something to say. They need a safe place to discover, cultivate, and share their emerging voices.

Rayne LackoRayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.

Lesley HolmesLesley Holmes contributes her expertise to several educational and arts nonprofits benefitting children, teens, and older adults in and around Los Angeles. Her work promotes alternative therapies, music education, literacy, and food as a pathway to healing. A lifelong chef and baker, Lesley is a Los Angeles native who enjoys early morning hikes in the Hollywood Hills where she lives with her two teenage daughters.

Dream Up NowRayne and Lesley are the coauthors of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.

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