Ensuring engagement can be a difficult task when it comes to child and adolescent therapy, and understandably so. It can be difficult for a lot of patients to be vulnerable with their family and friends, let alone a total stranger! As a result, we've compiled a list of 15 of the most effective therapeutic exercises for you to implement within your therapy. They're designed to increase participation to allow children and teenagers to communicate without fear of judgment and within a safe space, and can be used alongside other worksheets. They are easy to facilitate and can feel less invasive in comparison to other therapy practices. If you have a hard time exploring a client’s mental health and find difficulty in helping them express honest feelings, then look no further.
How does therapy benefit kids and teens?
Therapy offers a multitude of benefits for children and teenagers to improve mental health and resolve behavioral issues. For instance, with therapy, children and teenagers can develop coping skills to better manage any symptoms that impair their day-to-day functioning. They can build a solid foundation to help each day feel a little more manageable, as well as to produce more positive and healthy outlooks on life. Puberty can be an especially turbulent time, with therapy allowing children and teens to learn how to cope, and better understand the thoughts and feelings that they may have. They can learn to express their feelings more effectively, which also works to strengthen relationships and communication skills with others.
With therapy, children and teenagers can resolve conflicts with ease, in order to promote higher self-esteem and confidence. Identify negative thought patterns and habits, and transform these to help clients overcome trauma and process emotions healthily.
15 therapeutic activities for teens and kids
To help you on the right track, we've collated a list of 15 of the most helpful therapeutic activities for teens and children that can increase engagement as well as clinical outcomes.
My life CD
For the music inclined, this activity allows clients to express their feelings and thoughts through music. Essentially, the child or teen will create a music CD consisting of their favorite songs. Allow them to select songs based on a theme, such as their concerns, goals, and self-esteem, and provide the client with art tools to help them decorate their cover. Together, you can listen to the songs, and encourage the client to discuss why they selected each song and what the lyrics represent within their own life.
Letter to self
For some, words are more powerful than sounds. In this activity, teenagers are encouraged to write a letter from the future to their current selves. Help guide the client through aspects they wish to talk about, and help them highlight issues they are experiencing now, and how their future self would like to perceive them. This is an encouraging way to help clients gain an alternate perspective on their emotions and feelings, and how to have more confidence when it comes to their current situation.
Expressing feeling by talking
Alternatively, if your client prefers a casual setting or the outdoors, consider this walking and talking method. Go for a walk with your client through a nearby park or neighborhood, and facilitate casual conversation to get to know them better. As the conversation ensues, clients are likely to feel more comfortable discussing deeper and heavier topics that focus on their issues at hand.
It's not uncommon for children and teenagers to speak before they think. With this mindfulness speaking exercise, you can work towards instilling a think-before-speak mentality and help teenagers concentrate on the three mindfulness principles. These include slowing down to be in the present, analyzing emotionally and rationally before speaking, as well as reflecting on the effects of what the client said and how others respond to it.
Many teenagers and children struggle with self-esteem and find it difficult to identify their own character strengths. This activity focuses on helping teenagers recognize their accomplishments and positive traits by asking them to share a story of achievement in any area of their life. As the listener, it is your job to identify the strengths within their story and provide feedback. Because of the interactive component of this activity, it is best suited for group sessions with teenagers.
This activity is also great for groups of teenagers and encourages individuals to appreciate the positive things in their lives. It helps teenagers recognize that sometimes it is the small things, and not always the most obvious. Simply make groups with three to five teenagers each, and instruct all groups to think about something they're grateful for. Encourage each group to write these things on a whiteboard, and then instruct all groups to move to the next to examine what they have written. The groups must then draw connections between the ideas they come up with and the exercise completed once gratitude has been mapped. Take some time to reflect on what gratitude means, and how it is essential to self-esteem and confidence.
Playing two truths and a lie game
This activity is a great icebreaker for teenagers who may not be familiar with one another. In this activity, set aside a time for 5 minutes to allow group members to think of two true facts about their life, and one lie. Each member will read the two truths and one lie without identifying which is which, with other group members guessing what fact is a lie.
Creating a creative collage
For creative children and teenagers, creative colleges are a great way to help clients express their core beliefs and values through the power of imagination. Simply encourage teenagers to focus on their core values, and to express them with images, words, colors, and phrases from magazines and newspapers within a collage. Once completed, each group member should share their collage and discuss the reasoning behind their creative choices.
In this activity, gather a bag of colored candy such as M&Ms or Skittles, and separate them into their colors. Give each client a random selection of candy, and encourage them to answer each of the prompts associated with each color. Some examples of prompts include the following:
- Red - when was a time you were angry recently?
- Yellow - describe a positive memory
- Blue - describe a time when you are sad
This activity is for children and teenagers who are struggling with anger issues. This activity posits that the longer we hold on to anger, the greater likelihood of the issue escalating into a much larger problem. In this activity, the therapist holds a balloon and asks the client to think of a time when they felt angry, but do not discuss it. Simply blow air into the balloon each time the client has felt angry recently. This continues until the balloon pops. Then, repeat the exercise, and instead, the client receives a balloon. Instead of thinking of the time they were angry, the client then talks about it. As the client talks about their anger, let some air out of the balloon. At the end of the exercise, reiterate that the balloon did not pop as the client was able to discuss their feelings which resulted in escalation prevention.
Commonly used in meditative therapy, yoga is a great reflective practice that helps increase self-awareness and induces calmness to approach any mental health challenge with ease. Yoga is a great way to facilitate deep breathing exercises, and help clients feel more grounded within themselves and their emotions.
Not only are board games super fun, but they allow you to evaluate multiple dimensions that can shed insight into a person's character. Depending on the board game, you can assess decision-making skills and relational skills, amongst many others within your child and teenager clients. Board games can reveal a number of valuable factors pertaining to your client and how they perceive challenging situations, with board games providing practical skills in numerous life aspects.
Menus are a great way to display information, even outside food establishments. In this activity, create a folded menu titled “The Anger Menu”, With menu options on the inside representing different ways to express anger healthily. Have the client brainstorm and discuss a bunch of healthy options for them to vent their anger without harming themselves or others.
If you are dealing with artistic children and teenagers, consider adding art therapy to your practice. The clients can draw about whatever is considering them at the moment, or they can draw to a specific theme that you set, with the client discussing their feelings as they work through their artistic process. It is a great way to encourage clients to open up through a noninvasive environment, that prioritizes something that they really enjoy.
Therapy worksheets for kids and teens
If facilitating exercises isn't really your thing, then you can also consider implementing therapy worksheets. Therapy worksheets are great supplementary tools to your appointments, as they can evaluate a range of mental health issues and disorders, and without compromise. Therapy worksheets incorporate exercises to encourage participation and interaction, with no additional equipment required. In fact, many worksheets encompass activities that can be completed independently, which is great for convenience purposes, as well as for homework assessments. Feel free to assign these worksheets as homework tasks, as the child and teen can work on their mental health outside of your office, and come back with results to be analyzed. These worksheets work towards enforcing higher coping mechanisms, alleviating depression and anxiety, and instilling greater self-esteem, amongst many other outcomes.
Take home message
It can be very daunting for teenagers and children to come to therapy. Specifically, some children may feel embarrassed or ashamed about it or may feel intimidated in opening up to someone whom they do not have a previous relationship with. It can be difficult to encourage participation, with these 15 therapeutic activities working towards providing children and teenagers with greater confidence in expressing their thoughts and feelings. Children and teenagers can approach appointments with a positive mindset, and look forward to the time when they get to share their experiences freely with no judgment, and instead, with compassion and understanding.