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Experiential Therapy & Its Role in Teen Addiction Treatment

Group of teens playing volleyball on a beach as part of their experiential therapy  

Teen drug treatment can involve a variety of different therapeutic techniques. One such technique is experiential therapy, which is an alternative to common talk therapy practices like cognitive behavioral therapy.

What Is Experiential Therapy?

In experiential therapy, instead of simply sitting and talking with a therapist, teens engage in activities, such as role-playing, using props, and completing artwork. Engaging in therapy in this way can help teens to become more open to talking with a therapist because the session occurs while they are doing enjoyable activities.

The history of experiential therapy indicates that this practice began in the 1970s, and it has roots in humanistic psychology. The focus of this therapy is on creating emotional experiences in the context of a supportive relationship with a mental health professional. During experiential therapy, teens engage in an experience, such as creating artwork, and a trained therapist helps them to uncover the emotions or underlying psychological issues associated with their behaviors during the experience.

Examples of Experiential Therapy for Teens

There are several interactive therapeutic techniques that can be utilized in an experiential therapy-based program. Some examples of experiential therapy for teens include:

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy employs the use of different animals as “therapy partners”. Many people find it rewarding to care for and spend time with an animal, and may even find animals to have a calming effect. Research shows that animals can successfully enhance therapeutic healing for humans of all ages.  It is especially useful for children and adolescents with or at risk for mental health problemsEquine-assisted therapy and canine-assisted therapy are the two most common types of animal-assisted therapies used in drug recovery programs. They teach individuals how to properly engage the animal in a gentle and happy interaction, thereby forming a trusting bond between the two.  Research shows that therapeutically working with animals has several benefits, including:
  • Improving communication and development of  trust
  • Building self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Improving social skills and leading to a decreased sense of isolation or feelings of loneliness
  • Teaching boundaries and respect as well displaying greater emotional control
  • Broadening one’s life perspective and developing one’s spirituality

Art Therapy

Art can be a powerful tool for substance abuse treatment and allows expression through creativity. Art therapy programs help to develop self-awareness, promote emotional exploration, address unresolved conflicts and increase self-esteem.  Art therapy programs for teens can include techniques such as:
  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Sculpting
  • Carving
  • Crafting
  • Doodling
  • Molding clay
It can provide insight into concerns or issues that may not be in the forefront of the individuals mind. The process allows for any deep suppressed feelings or memories to be brought to the surface so they can be dealt with head-on. Art therapy has become a fundamental part of many rehabilitation centers, crisis centers, mental health facilities and private practices that aim to promote health, wellness and growth.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is the use of music interventions, by a therapist, to help address physical, emotional, social and cognitive needs of individuals. Music therapy activities for teens can include: 
  • Playing instruments
  • Writing songs
  • Singing
  • Moving to music
  • Lyric discussion
  • Making music videos
  • Musical relaxation exercises
It provides an alternate path of expression, especially for teens who find it difficult to express themselves in conventional talk therapy. Creativity and self-expression through music therapy provides a unique and positive means of communication for teens.  This type of treatment can be especially helpful in allowing individuals to tap into their creative energies and express their emotions. It can be a powerful tool for processing emotions as well as helping individuals to cope with any withdrawals or cravings. Music therapy has been demonstrated to have a number of beneficial effects on teens such as:
  • Encouraging and increasing the individual’s engagement in their treatment process
  • Providing a healthy outlet for expressing feelings, thoughts and emotions
  • Providing emotional support for teens and their families
  • Overall physical and psychological rehabilitation

Recreation Therapy

Teen recreational therapy encompasses a number of physical or movement activities that encourage a healthy lifestyle. Such movements have been shown to improve mood and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. It encourages individuals to confront their emotional struggles through physical and social activities. Recreational therapy activities include:
  • Yoga
  • Paddleboarding
  • Hiking
  • Sports
  • Exercise
The benefits of this type of experiential therapy include:
  • Improved mood
  • A boost in confidence
  • The development of social skills and coping skills

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy separates the individual from their problems, changing their perspective and allowing them to see things from a different stance. This therapy is especially useful for those who define themselves and their lives by their problems. The goal of narrative therapy is to help individuals see that what they are going through does not completely identify who they are inside.   Narrative therapy techniques provide an opportunity for an individual to see things from a different angle, allowing them to feel more empowered to make changes in their thought patterns and behavior. By doing this they can essentially rewrite their life story for a more positive future that reflects their true selves and their true capabilities.

How Experiential Therapy Helps Teens Struggling with Addiction

Experiential therapy is beneficial for teens who are living with addictions because they may find this style of therapy to be less intimidating than sitting in a chair and talking to an adult about their problems. Experiential therapies such as art therapy or music therapy give them an opportunity to express themselves in a manner that makes them feel comfortable.

Another benefit of experiential therapy is that it can help teens to develop hobbies that do not involve drugs and alcohol. For example, through the experiential therapy process, teens may find that they enjoy art or music, and these are drug-free hobbies they can explore after treatment.

The research shows that experiential therapy is useful. For example, in one study with art therapy, 98% of participants felt that art therapy had a beneficial effect on their psychological health. Experiential therapy can improve mental health functioning in teens struggling with addiction and prevent them from turning to drugs.

If you or a teen in your life is struggling with addiction, Next Generation Village offers services in a scenic, lakeside setting in Florida. We create individualized treatment plans for each child, with therapy suited to their unique needs. Reach out today to begin the journey toward recovery.

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