Therapy Games Behavioral Health
10 Effective Therapy Activities for Teens and Adolescents
It’s the driving force behind so much of what we do. When we feel a true sense of motivation, it’s amazing what we can put our minds toward. In the world of mental health therapy, clients can be more open and eager to participate in sessions when they are motivated to do so.
As we all know, it isn’t always easy to find motivation or help others find it.
Some therapists may find it particularly challenging to motivate teenagers and adolescents within therapy sessions.
Mental health disorders are common in young people. In fact, 1 in 7 meets the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder. However, many of those teens and adolescents do not actually access professional help.
One reason young adults do not seek therapy? Their perceptions of a therapeutic relationship with professionals. According to one study, 68% reported this as a concern, including the feeling that it might be difficult to trust the professional working with them.
With this perception, those adolescents and teens who actually do access therapy may not easily engage or participate. They may come into therapy with a wall up, and this barrier can be hard to break through.
Here’s the good news.
Using the right activities can increase a young adult’s motivation in therapy and can effectively help them make progress. Increasing the effectiveness of therapy is a win-win that benefits both therapists and young clients!
Choosing the Most Effective Exercises & Activities
So, how do you find the right activities to use with your young adult clients in therapy?
According to research, creative activities can positively affect adolescents’ behavioral changes, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
That’s right. Traditional talk therapy can be a barrier to communication in sessions with young adults. It can be best for professionals to think out of the box when it comes to planning sessions.
Creative activities might include those that incorporate the client’s interests, hobbies or involve movement and art. It can also be helpful to incorporate writing and technology into sessions with young adults, to encourage participation from those who might feel a sense of stigma or embarrassment in speaking directly with a professional.
We’ve put together a list of some of the 10 most effective (and fun!) therapy activities for teens and adolescents. Whether you’re treating clients in-person or through teletherapy, these activities can help your young adult clients stay motivated, build a positive rapport with you, and make progress.
#1: The Candy Game
Here’s a sweet way to help teens and adolescents effectively open up about their emotions during sessions.
You and the client each get a small bag of M&M’s or Skittles. Make a code that links each color of candy to a certain emotion. For example:
Red = Angry
Yellow = Happy
Blue = Sad
Green = Jealous
Orange = Excited
Take turns taking out one piece of candy from your bag, and find which emotion its color corresponds to. Then, share about what makes you feel that emotion or a past experience that brought out the feeling in you. Of course, your client gets to eat his or her candy in between turns!
Because a professional is not asking the young adult client a series of direct questions (which could be intimidating), the client may be more likely to engage in an activity like this. A snack is a nice way to break the ice and start building a strong, professional client-therapist rapport.
#2: Gratitude Scavenger Hunt
Expressing gratitude is strongly correlated with greater happiness, according to research from Harvard Medical School. It’s a concept frequently targeted in therapy sessions with teenagers because gratitude can lead to positive relationships with others and increased strength in the face of adversity.
But, determining the most effective way to help teenagers identify and express aspects of their life that they are grateful for is not always easy. Asking your client to complete a gratitude scavenger hunt is one way to evoke these feelings!
Your child can look around their room among their personal possessions and outside to complete the scavenger hunt. For example, finding a picture of a friend they are grateful for. Or, a favorite piece of clothing that they love to wear.
Incorporating movement and visuals, and tapping into the client’s life in this way can be an effective way to work on a concept like gratitude during therapy sessions. If you’re seeing the client in person, he or she can complete the hunt at home and bring it back during the next session.
This is a great activity to complete over a teletherapy session. The client can actually find and show the therapist things on video that capture their feelings of gratitude!
#3: Exploding Balloons
Adolescents and teenagers can benefit from learning how to identify how holding onto anger and other emotions inside of them can lead to problems. In therapy, these clients might work on learning appropriate strategies for expressing anger and emotions and practice using these strategies.
In the exploding balloons activity, the client and the therapist each get a balloon. The therapist asks the client to think of a time or a situation that made them feel angry, but do not talk about it. Then the therapist blows some air into a balloon. Then, the client is asked to think of another situation in which they felt anger, and the therapist blows more air into the balloon. This continues until eventually, the balloon pops.
The talking point for this one is that if we continue to hold onto anger, it can lead to other problems.
Next, repeat the above exercise and the client gets a balloon. But this time, after the client thinks of something that made him or her angry, he talks about it. As he or she discusses it, ask the client to let a little air out of the balloon. At the end of the exercise, reinforce to the client that the balloon did not pop!
Explain that by letting some of those feelings out (by talking about them, which was represented by letting air out of the balloon), an extreme consequence was avoided.
This is an engaging, hands-on activity that helps young adults understand how holding in feelings like anger can lead to damaging consequences.
#4: Talk it out Basketball
Movement and sports can be an effective way to engage active young adults in therapy. Some have trouble sitting still, or might open up more in therapy when they are doing something fun - like this talk it out basketball game!
Ask the client to help you come up with some questions to write on a few index cards. For example, “When was a time when you felt really happy?” and assign a number of points to each card. Use masking tape to tape the cards around the room, with a small basketball hoop in the middle.
Take turns making baskets from different cards. After you answer the question on the card, shoot a basket!
#5: Hopes and Fears Tree
Art can be an effective mode of expression for young people who are reluctant to share their feelings or thoughts verbally with someone else.
Creating a hopes and fears tree can help your client talk about their goals and also uncomfortable feelings like fears they have that may hold them back from pursuing those goals.
Ask him or her to draw a big tree on a poster board. On the leaves of the tree, ask your client to write their dreams. Under the tree, your client will draw worms. Have them write their fears on the worms.
Hopes and Fears Tree
Explain to the client that instead of running away from their fears, they can identify, name, and face them.
The worms in the picture are actually helpful, and fertilize the dream tree to help it grow!
#6: Feel the Beat
Experts in the field of mental health report that music can help with stress relief, emotional well-being, and even identify formation in adolescents.
Help your client create a “Mental Health Playlist”. If you’re doing a teletherapy session, you can screen share a music app. Search for songs that can help match the client’s moods at different times. Clinical therapists recommend ordering the songs to start with difficult emotions (like anger) and progress to more desired emotions (like happiness.
According to experts, music-based activities like this can be helpful for clients who struggle with verbal expression. It can also help build a positive therapeutic relationship because it involves clinicians relating to teens through something they enjoy!
Several studies have proven that Yoga can have positive effects on adolescents and teenagers who have anxiety disorders and stress.
Yoga can be considered trendy, enjoyable, and calming for young adults. Not to mention, effective in providing calming effects. If you’re a clinician holding an in person session, grab a few yoga mats and turn on some soothing music.
During teletherapy sessions, consider screen sharing a Cosmic Kids Yoga video on YouTube as you and the client follow along.
#8: Make a Self-Esteem Mirror
Mental health therapists who work with adolescents and teens know that helping a client develop a healthy sense of self-esteem is a common focus during sessions.
The theory behind this craft? Positive interventions like this can help children who struggle with mental health feel more confident about themselves.
Ask your child to create a personalized mirror for him or herself, adding colors, charms, and words to attach around the mirror that describes them.
#9: A Letter from My Future Self
Here’s another effective activity that can help teenagers express themselves when they might not be able to do so easily through traditional conversation.
You’ll ask the client to imagine the traits they’d like to have and the goals they hope to reach in the future. Next, have him or her picture what advice their future self might give their current self. For example, to keep working hard or stay positive. Guide your client as you help him or her write this advice in the form of a letter (then, they can keep it to look back on later!).
#10: Board Games
Board games aren’t just fun, they’re a great opportunity to teach some therapeutic skills!
Let your client choose a game from a selection you have - like Uno and Connect 4. Games like these, which require strategy, help develop impulse control and social thinking skills. The client must consider their opponent’s point of view in order to win the game.
If you’re in a teletherapy session, many games like these are also available to play virtually!
More Resources for Engaging & Effective Therapy
When clients are engaged in effective, fun activities, they are more likely to commit to and participate in therapy sessions. For adolescents and teenagers especially, using motivating activities is key to positive outcomes!
Looking for more resources you can use working with teens and adolescents? Check out our library of free PDF worksheets and handouts in the TheraPlatform resource center
You can use TheraPlatform to manage several aspects of your practice, from documentation to financial organization and scheduling. Not to mention, some amazing resources for mental health therapists! Consider starting with a free trial of TheraPlatform today.