Monday, August 30, 2010

By: Erin Brumleve, MA, LPC, ATR

Learning new skills and rapid change can be intimidating. Even psychologically "normal," healthy adolescents, defined for the purpose of this article as adolescents who are not involved in mental health services and do not have an active Diagnostic and Statistical Manual diagnosis, experience a decline in their self-concept between the ages of 12-14 (Hadley, Harris, & Moore, 2008).

The initial inspiration for the Expressive Mask Making for Teens group came from my work with adolescents as an art therapist in an outpatient community mental health setting near Denver, Colorado. Our adolescent clients came to the mental health center for a variety of reasons: grief and loss, trauma, abuse, anxiety, depression. Significant environmental and psychosocial  stressors challenged nearly all.

I sought to create a group that would help clients cultivate a positive sense of their adolescent selves. The group needed to be structured enough to contain powerful emotions and provide a sense of safety, yet flexible enough to meet varying individual needs and experiences, while effectively addressing the gamut of diagnoses that are present in an outpatient community mental health setting. The purpose of this article is to share insights from this  process as well as foster a discussion on how the intervention might be expanded upon or improved.

Expressive Mask Making for Teens is an art therapy group utilizing mask making to address the age appropriate developmental task of identity formation while also safely containing client experience. Participants in the eight-week group were directed to create a series of three masks themed “Past Self,” “Present Self” and “Future Self.” Each mask was made from different materials including Celluclay®, handmade paper mache from newsprint, and tin foil and masking tape. Demonstrations were provided for all materials as the group transitioned from each mask making segment. All materials were placed over plastic human face forms and then painted with acrylic when dry. Feathers, sequins, and other 'creative detritus' were made available as decorative elements.

The mixed gender group was comprised of 10 adolescents, ranging in age from 13-17 years. All sessions were 90 minutes. Sessions were conducted in the following format: 10 minutes to arrive and check in, 45-50 minutes of art-making, 10-15 minutes clean up, and then a final 10-15 minutes for processing as a group. A portable cd player provided calm instrumental music. Group processing took place after the clean up as a way of physically marking the transition time and transforming the space from a workspace to one intended for viewing and reflection. Additionally, clients were less likely to become distracted by the materials or finish up their own work instead of practicing empathetic listening to the group member whose turn it was to share at that moment.

All participants were given a “sketchbook,” which was a pocket folder with brads and blank three ring binder paper. The initial 10 minutes of arrival time was less formal and designed around the different personalities of the group's participants. For example, clients who were more extroverted or social greeted each other quietly, while clients who were more introverted journaled,  sketched, or began working on their piece. Clients were given a worksheet that corresponded to each of their masks (past self, present self, past self). The worksheet served as both a prompt for clients when creating their masks as well as place for them to privately record insights discovered during art-making. With clients' permission, I responded to their written material in their journals. Thus, clients were able to have some individual support and practice healthy boundaries by having a place to divulge information that may not feel safe or appropriate to share with the group. Additionally, the  sketchbooks served as a place where clients could plan out their masks.

In the final group session masks were exhibited in the lobby of the community mental health center. All clients and their legal guardians signed an optional artwork release prior to the exhibition. Participants seemed genuinely pleased to have their work on display. Family and friends were invited to the opening reception and light refreshments were served. I observed the exhibition to engage family members who had previously been reluctant to participate in their child's therapy. Clients and family members alike commented on how they were surprised by their own artistic skill.

A clinical observation that I would hope to investigate further is that the past, present, and future format for the masks tended to lend itself in some cases to the construction of trauma narrative. It would be interesting to compare such the mask making format for eliciting a trauma narrative to a more established formats such as Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT) or Trauma Focused Art Therapy (TF-ART). Secondly, a measurement tool should be utilized in future groups to perform a pre and post assessment of participants' self-concept. Hadley, Harris, & Moore (2008) offer a simple 30 item measurement tool for assessing self concept in adolescents. For art therapists working as a part of a multidisciplinary team, more complex assessments may be utilized such as Harter's Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents (SPPA) or Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale. Thus, my future recommendations are that quantitative data needs to be accurately measured and the group needs to be compared to existing treatment models that safely contain the trauma narrative in order to more specifically understand how the Expressive Mask Making for Teens group improves self-concept of adolescents in an outpatient mental health setting.


Hadley, A., Harris, E., & Moore, K., (2008). Assessing what kids think about themselves: A guide to adolescent self –concept for out-of-school time program practitioners. Child Trends Research to Results, 2008-32. Retrieved Dec. 27, 2009 from _catdisp_page.cfm?LID=96FA5E0D-E45A-4D27- 900F6991B7157E9F

Sullivan, B. (2006). Adolescent Brain Development.: Microsoft PowerPoint from Utah Addiction Center. University of Utah. Retrieved Jan. 05, 2010 from

Tyson, P., & Tyson, R. (1990). Psychoanalytic theories of development. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.