A Synergetic Model
When combined, art therapy and IFS may provide a powerful and synergistic model for working with trauma among teenagers. Both models address critical developmental needs of adolescence and both provide effective means for safely and effectively processing traumatic experiences.
Developmentally, adolescence is marked by a need to individuate and to affirm one's self. The constant quest towards achieving some answer to the question "Who and I?" is the focus of adolescence. This search for identity and self-understanding can be facilitated by exposing teenagers to a "parts" model such as IFS. Teenagers' abstract thinking abilities have reached a level that allows an understanding of the language of parts. They can identify and relate to a sad part of themselves, an angry part, a bored part, and so on. To experience that behind an angry part is a hurt part fosters self-awareness and leads to valuable insights, especially for a teenager who tends to display aggressive and violent behaviors. Identifying the Self, with its qualities of compassion and good leadership, can be a profound shift for teenagers who have formed an identity around their angry parts.
While a model such as IFS helps self-awareness and identity formation, art therapy create a safe and inviting environment. Teenagers typically feel more at ease engaging and giving voice to psychological aspects of themselves through art than tour talking, especially in the presence of adults such as parents and therapists. In art therapy, clients do not have to comment about their art if they do not want to. When teenagers' needs for privacy, separations and autonomy are respected and supported, they typically feel more empowered and the therapeutic process is facilitated.
While art therapy and IFS match teenagers' developmental needs, both of these approaches are also effective therapies for processing hurtful and traumatic life events. IFS proposes a solid, non-pathological map to work with various parts of the person, including the exiled parts that usually hold traumas and/or painful life events. Artistic expression gives voice to these parts. The parts are given a chance to express themselves, and to be externalized.
Once a traumatized part has been externalized through drawing, painting, or sculpting, a psychological distance is created which helps to differentiate and un-blend the traumatized part from the Self. Because IFS assumes that the Self, with its positive attributes, is always present, un-blending parts from the Self is key to restoring the system to its greatest state of health. In short, artistic expression helps to un-blend parts from the true Self, an essential element in IFS therapy.
Making art also stimulates left and right hemispheres of the brain and therefore may help with the accessing of painful and traumatic events. In IFS terms, art making facilitates the unburdening of the exiles.