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Pat B. Allen, Ph.D., ATR

Whenever I begin to think about a topic I tend to begin with the words that are used. For me, although I am a visual artist, but I am also a writer, language is very important. I think of words as a code that have a wealth of meaning in them, sometimes hidden within them, that can illuminate what is unsurfaced and unsaid if I dig into their meaning. Words used by service providers tend to get worn out from doing the hard work of abstraction. Abstract words and phrases keep the crushing weight of the reality they represent at bay. Could anyone really begin to compile statistics about at risk kids if they had to keep the images of what that really means at the forefront of their minds as they worked? So I have been thinking for sometime about the topic of this talk: the at-risk adolescent. 'Adolescent' is a peculiar word. It is not the simple descriptive word "teenager", which seems casual and light-hearted. Adolescent is somber and serious, freighted with meaning. John Ayto (1990) my favorite etymologist says: "The original notion behind both adolescent and adult is that of 'nourishment'. The Latin verb 'alere' meant to nourish, to be nourished or to grow comes from alescere and the prefix 'ad' makes it growing or being nourished. So adolescence is a time of growing and being nourished. So far, so good. And it is a time of risk naturally because to need nourishment is to be vulnerable. We might get it but we might not.

I like the word risk, the sound of it and all that it implies. One persistent theory of the origin of the word is that its ancestral meaning is 'to sail dangerously close to the rocks'. I like that image because it conveys something clear and rather exciting. Looking at some images helps convey an aspect of risk, the allure of the beautiful and dangerous.

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image In the English language we acquired the word risk via the French 'riscare' from the Italian 'risco', a derivative of the verb 'riscare' meaning to run into danger. Now interestingly, the word danger is etymologically parallel to dominion. Originally to "be in someone's danger" meant to be in his power or under his dominion. Danger, dominion and dominate derive from the Latin, 'dominus' meaning Lord or master. So here are two express needs of adolescence that are embedded in the word itself:
- the need to be nourished
- the need to establish mastery or dominion

Adolescence is a time of transition from being utterly dependent upon others for nourishment to beginning to establish one's own dominion or mastery over one's self, one's means of nourishment, one's impulses, and the space one inhabits. What are turf wars, gang symbols, graffiti, body piercing, tattoos, or clothing styles different from others than efforts to broadcast dominion over one's neighborhood, or one's body, and certainly one's image in the world. If we just say our adolescents are "at risk", that leaves us with an abstraction, without an image to work with and perhaps without much of an emotional understanding of the issue. If we say "Our adolescents are sailing dangerously close to the rocks", we have an image and something we can respond to with passion and imagination. What is not conveyed in the term "at risk" comes across fully in the image of sailing dangerously close to the rocks: exhilaration, beauty, excitement, challenge, terror, and power. The image also helps us frame our question: "How can we help them from crashing into the rocks and being lost? How can we help them navigate the dangerous yet exciting passage that is adolescence?" Specifically, how can the expressive arts help? The image hints at what will not work: education, prohibition, punishment. I image also suggests what the solution will have to have: beauty, danger, excitement, challenge, terror and exhilaration. It isn't risk itself that is the problem; it is the lack of imagination about what the risk might look like, the lack of imagination about what risk is all about. Our job as artists and expressive arts therapists is to help people imagine.

"Our imagination is the most important faculty we possess. It can be our greatest resource or our most formidable adversary. It is through our imagination that we discern possibilities and options" (Allen, 1995, p.3). Everything that exists was first imagined. We live our lives according to the stories we tell, which are the products of our imaginations. For example, that our adolescents are at risk is a story line we are currently telling. I am suggesting in this talk that a major value of expressive art is that it gives us the means to create better stories and to better tell our stories. For it is in how we tell our stories that reality is created. If we want life to have depth and to be worth living, we need stories that are complex and vivid, full of compassion, adventure and hope. Full, in other words, of risk. My experience, both personal and in observing others, is that when stories are told from the head alone or predominantly from a place of logic and rationality, they tend toward the dismal, simplistic and unhappy. But when pictures are added, images are used, something shifts, and we see more possibilities. Think of the difference between reading a novel and looking at a graph. Both kinds of information are valuable. When I read the simple, stark statistics about youth drug use, my mind is affected; when I watch a movie like Traffic, where teenagers use crack cocaine and dump a friend who has overdosed on the ground outside an emergency room and speed away, my mind, my heart and my spirit are affected.

"Pictures", says Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, "invite the eye not to rush a long, but to rest awhile and dwell with them in the enjoyment of the revelation" (1974, xi). It is not always enjoyment but it is engagement we are after. How can we stay with something long enough to really learn and absorb its meaning? How do we stick around for the story behind the statistics? Expressive art is a powerful means to do this. The pleasure that comes from making and doing, painting, dancing, helps us stay engaged. The more we do that, the more attuned we become to the meaning below the message. We consider that stories can be both reductive and revelatory; we can use our imaginations to move between these two kinds of stories to have a fuller, richer grasp of what is going on. The Youth Risk Behavior Study (2005) for example, gives us the story of at risk youth in a pared down, bare bones way. This is the story told by the epidemiologist and it is an important story. As artists we understand that art is about call and response. The epidemiologist's story calls out to me and my response begins like this: " This is a story of malnourishment as serious as the story of swollen-bellied babies in Africa". How can that be the story of adolescents in the United States of America in the year 2005? I ask. This is the land of plenty; the land of opportunity. I have to search into the story with my imagination. This is a story that cries out for a new telling. The way stories and myths arise in a culture is through the exercise of imagination by its people. I have done this many times with kids in the studio. The story the world tells about Terry is he's a gang banger, he's dangerous. At first glance maybe you'd think that is the story told in his art as well. But his witness writing tells another story. He was attacked and beaten by other boys. He is afraid; he carries a knife for protection. In nearly every case, these big boys who many would close the street to avoid do not see themselves as others see them. Their stories are ones of vulnerability, terror, and often shame at feeling this way.

So let's turn our imagination to the story we are telling about our youth being at risk. The first thing I notice is that I have shifted the vocabulary. This is important because the story of at risk adolescent includes me, it includes all of us. Who am I to an adolescent? What is my role in the story? I am an adult. That is a pretty generic term, neutral even, that gives minimal information. I can surmise that I am separate but I get no clear sense of our relationship and what is expected of me, the adult, in relation to the adolescent. Is the adolescent a predator? Am I a possible victim?

But who am I to a youth? I am an elder. These words imply something about teaching or mentoring, about respect and tradition. About relationship. Am I willing to have a relationship to youth? Am I willing to be an elder? Adolescents are striving to become adults. They will take my place, where will I go? The old age home? I don't so much like the sound of this story. But to be an elder in relation to youth, that implies responsibility; it implies relationship and connectedness that is absent in the words adult and adolescent. I have found that as an artist I can be an elder. The kids respect my skills; they see my work so I become vulnerable to their judgments. I have something I can teach and share. But also the relationship is reciprocal because as an artist I am open to learning from their images, I know truth when I see it and I'm not afraid of it. An artist is a special category of adult to most kids.

If we look a little bit more closely at the nature of these words, adult and adolescent and youth and elder, we can find one of the most persistent and deadly stories of Western culture. This is the myth of the naturalness of separation of young people from parents and family. Some of our best contemporary researches have labored long and hard to put this myth to rest. Carol Gilligan, professor of education at Harvard and a leading researcher of the lives and experiences of adolescent girls cites John Bowlby the eminent developmental theorist who has argued persuasively that primary familial attachment is an ongoing developmental requirement. Bowlby criticizes the psychoanalytic view of "adolescent development as requiring a withdrawal of attachment to parents which derives from Freud' theories of dependency and libido (Gilligan, 1990, p. 112).

Yet how often is it stated as an accepted fact that teenagers don't like being with their families, are embarrassed by their parents, don't want anything to do with family gatherings etc. How much of an adolescent's time is structured to disrupt family connection and undermine attachment? In her research Gilligan has found where attachment is unsatisfying or lacking as a source of nurturance"·girls may resort to precocious sexual involvement in a bid for attachment rather than for actual sexual gratification" (p. 114). Whether by design or ignorance, parents send their children into a kind of exile that begins around the sixth grade, though it may be getting earlier, I'm not sure. It is at this age that proto-adult issues such as sexuality, relationships with the opposite sex, smoking, and drinking and experimentation with drugs become vivid for children and it is at this point that parents are still clinging to the image of childhood as a relatively carefree time. Parents seem to imagine these issues are a ways off, in some vague land they remember from their own high school days, which bear little or no resemblance to the world their children inhabit. Kids have told me that they realize that their parents are oblivious and keep much of their reality to themselves in part to spare their parents the pain of confronting how inhospitable the world sometimes is for kids. Kids wear a bland or angry mask at home to accomplish this end; parents have deluded themselves to believe 'this is how kids are'. Patricia Hersch, author of A Tribe Apart, a best selling book about her firsthand account of adolescent culture says: "Over a decade adolescents themselves have rewritten the map of their journey to adulthood in infinite variations and we need to study this new geography" (1995, p. 363). Parents are often unaware of the desperate need for nurturance that their offspring have, a need that children wish passionately to have met by their families.

Dr. William Pollock, co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA says: "When we don't talk about the issues that are bothering our teenage boys, when we force them to separate rather than support them as they learn to individuate, they may retreat behind the mask so completely and consistently that it becomes hardened and fixed in place" (1998, p. 155). This hardening of his countenance is painful and uncomfortable for boys who want to feel real. Pollock finds that boys use alcohol and drugs to loosen it. "When the intoxication wears off, the boy retreats behind the mask. The straitjacket tightens and he begins to repress his true self again" (p. 157). He continues: "Some boys turn to drugs like marijuana and cocaine in a vain attempt to ease the pain of being adolescent..To numb the pain of emotions -the disconnection they feel from their parents, their low self-esteem, problems at school, with peers or with their budding sexuality" (p. 156). Tell mask story and look at the boy's faces.

In reality, all adolescents are "at-risk" because all of them are sailing dangerously close to the rocks as they navigate their way into adulthood, seeking the necessary nourishment to sustain them on their journey. As an adult I may or may not be willing to help them on this journey. And as you all know, the "rocks" are many, some hidden below the water, some set up to entice with a siren's song played endlessly on T.V. There are many false offers of nourishment to adolescents along the way, false maps handed out at every turn. The items we list as risks are so embedded in our culture, often so unquestioned that we sometimes have to wonder how anyone makes it to the next harbor intact.

Even the most carefully nourished kid must set out on this journey. Even the ones with good maps cannot anticipate hidden rocks: the dad suddenly downsized, the mom diagnosed with breast cancer, the friend hit by a drunk driver or killed in Iraq. I would submit to you, our job is not in fact one of prevention of risks, first because that is impossible. It is not risk prevention but the redefinition of risk, the re-imagination of risk that is our job. Because no one can successfully navigate adolescence and reach adulthood unless they have been tested by taking risks. Risks are necessary if we are to grow and become fully alive. And, the ability to continue to take risks is how we remain engaged throughout our life, to continue to transcend our 'self with a small 's' and engage with the "Self" by shedding our outworn identities and claiming the next phase of life with gusto and joy.

It is very interesting to consider the relationship of the major health risk behaviors that adolescents engage in. Putting aside injuries for a moment, let's look at some of the others: tobacco, alcohol and drugs, sex and food all have to do with ways in which human beings nourish ourselves. Each constitutes a substance taken in to fill us up, to replenish or realign our energies. Historically, each has had an honored place in rites and rituals of renewal in all religious traditions. This ritual meaning also applies to the other two categories: injuries and physical exertions. We need think no farther than the Sundance ceremony of the Arapaho and other Native Americans to call up an image that reminds us of the place of injury in shifting energy, moving one's self definition, from that of an ordinary young man to that of a warrior. Some inner city gangs make killing a rival member that sort of initiation. From this vantage point we notice something else: all the risk behaviors surveyed: getting hurt, smoking, drinking and getting high, eating, engaging in sexual acts and even exercising are all actions which can serve to alter human consciousness. In the case of adolescents it may often be correct to say that the alternation of consciousness is the primary motivation for engaging in risk behavior.

Expressive arts offer many of the same opportunities as the risk behaviors listed. Using materials is a deeply satisfying experience of being nourished. Paint is also very reliable, unlike many human beings. Red stays red, every time I mix it with yellow, I get orange, this is something I can count on. Dancing and singing provide a kind of exhilaration that is the release of endorphins in the body but without the hangover. Performing in front of others is both terrifying and thrilling. Those of us here who partake of any of the expressive arts can attest to the fact that art alters consciousness. And, there is this amazing payoff, once the immediate high wears off, my world view is enlarged and more spacious, my emotions are clearer and I have made connections with others with whom I can share my experience. I am in a word, nourished, more flexible and able to participate in the world.

There are two general motives for seeking to alter consciousness and often both are present for any human being. These are the pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of meaning. Anxiety, boredom, disappointment, embarrassment, terror, ennui and guilt can be exchanged at least in the short-term via alcohol, cigarettes, a Big Mac, speeding down the highway, a runner's high, a slit wrist, cunnilingus or a tab of ecstasy. It is human to want to alter consciousness. All religion and ritual and much great art, particularly the performative arts of music, dance and drama are based on the fundamental desire for transcendence that comes through the alteration of consciousness. It was one of the best days of my life when an adolescent boy came to my studio one afternoon unexpectedly. Grant had been excused from class because he had to go downtown and deal with a court date. He arrived at class about an hour and a half late and sat down and immediately began to draw. I noticed he was drawing images of marijuana leaves and a smoking joint, images he would not have been allowed to draw if this class took place in his public school. He smiled at me and kept working. When it was time to read witnesses, the writings I ask kids to do in response to their art work, he said: "I came here instead of getting stoned. It was really hard to be downtown, to be in court. It was so crowded and noisy on the train. Everything went okay but I was really nervous. I couldn't wait to get home and smoke a joint but instead I came here. I drew about it instead". The studio and the relationships and the materials provided many of the same elements Grant was used to getting through smoking pot: release of tension, calming of his nerves, a pleasant sensation of relaxation. The bonus he gained from drawing instead was he got smiles of support from other people, a sense of having met a challenge. He risked his fragile ego in exposing his true feelings to us and he was rewarded with the exhilaration that comes from hearing yourself tell the truth, out loud, and having it witnessed by others.

Carl Jung, who incidentally spent six years altering his consciousness on a regular basis through his paintings and active imagination, was contacted by Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who credited Jung with insight into the predicament of the alcoholic. Jung's insight was that no rational explanation would provide a cure. Instead, he viewed the craving for alcohol as a "low level spiritual thirst for wholeness" "You see" said Jung, "Alcohol in Latin is 'spiritus' and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison, the helpful formula therefore is : spiritus contras spiritum." (letter to Bill Wilson, January, 1961). Bill Wilson recognized in Jung's counsel that only a profound spiritual experience, involving an alteration of consciousness, essentially the dissolution of the ego, and a new identity or sense of meaning, could bring the alcoholic to a new place. Grant was practicing with exchanging his identity of pothead for that of artist, with giving up his tough guy ego ideal and exchanging it for that of an honest man, sensitive to feelings of vulnerability. The studio provided a culture of honesty in which such risks were taken by many adolescents.

This dissolution of the ego is the experience needed for the adolescent to pass from the experience of childhood into adulthood. The experience of loosening the ego boundaries is at once pleasurable and terrifying. It evokes our early life in utero, a sense of oneness that was our pre-birth state as well as the ecstatic experience of care and connection with the mother. This state remains as a template of consciousness that we return to in some measure at every life transition. Without culturally constructed means to periodically reach that state where we are renewed through receiving a new identity, life becomes brittle and dry, devoid of spark and meaning. We are isolated and lose our way. Having lost the traditional means for returning to the transcendent state and emerging with a new identity, our adolescents create ritual and quest after meaning with the means at hand: food, drugs, risky behavior in the sexual realm. Anyone who has watched the movie Trainspotting can easily see the nature of ritual created about preparing and shooting up heroin, sharing that ritual in a community of like-minded others, the pleasure that ensues almost immediately for the addict is palpable. He is no longer in the squalid surroundings that we the viewers are left in; he has journeyed elsewhere and is happier for the trip.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, the University of Chicago researcher who wrote the book entitled Being Adolescent, (1984) says this: "·the pursuit of spontaneous sources of pleasure does not lead to growth. Experiencing pleasure simply returns the organism to a homeostatic balance; it does not propel it to change toward greater complexity" p. 264. Here in lies a major problem with the risk behaviors of adolescents. Biologically programmed to seek experiences of pleasure, or the relief of pain, boredom or oppression leaves out another major need: that is the need for meaning that comes with taking successfully taking risks. Csikzentmihalyi continues: "When people enjoy an activity, it is because of a balanced tension between challenges and skills. If the challenges get to be too high, and the person doubts his ability to succeed, worry ensues and leads to anxiety. However, if there is no way to make use of one's skills, then boredom arrives and extreme boredom also yields anxiety." What Csikzentmihalyi describes as flow is an optimal mix of challenge and enjoyment. Enjoyment, he notes however, is an unstable state, "To keep experiencing flow one must try new things and do them better every time·enjoyment is like a built-in thermostat that indicates whether we are operating at full capacity, at the leading edge of growth"p. 262?). Expressive arts are a very reliable means to attaining flow and promoting growth. Art experiences can be planned by an experienced expressive art therapist to account for the level of skill of the adolescents and to make sure opportunities for growth are built in and can be accessed at will. Paintings can be repainted when the youngster is unsatisfied with his result, art materials are ever willing to be re-engaged with over and over.

Sound is a simple means. Our bodies are finely tuned rhythmic organisms. Vickie Dodd, a teacher and body worker says: "All of the individual organs and systems of the body vibrate in their own rhythm and tone which creates the internal orchestra that is the body, the symphony of life" (2005). (Walt Whitman said, "I sing the body electric"). "Each of us emits a unique tone, which is possible to hear and sense. Drug abuse, poor diet, negative thoughts forms, and all denied emotions create dis-ease, which disturb our basic rhythm, causing the tone of the body to become dissonant. To restore balance, one needs to undergo a transformation of emotions"(p. 24). Entering into the studio we have all the means for that transformation of emotion to take place, with an optimal balance of risk and safety.

Adolescence is a numinous time of transition between childhood and adulthood. School is usually the main location of growth possibilities. But schools are designed to handle a volume of young people and cannot necessarily provide carefully enough calibrated experience with the right mix of challenge and enjoyment. In fact, many schools would be puzzled at the idea that enjoyment should be part of their charge, even though research shows that learning is at best difficult without it. Here is what Csikzentmihalyi says: "Perhaps the main reason adolescents stop growing is because their initial lack of skills is exposed too suddenly to excessive challenges·the expectation of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that precludes further growth" p.269. Most of the at-risk adolescents with whom I have worked have in fact been "exposed too suddenly to excessive challenges", the death of a parent, divorce and relocation, for some simply arriving at middle school to find socially precocious peers pressuring them to use substances or engage in sexual behavior, or arriving at high school and finding the size and scale of the building and population overwhelming, the academic expectations crushing. For some there has never been quite enough to go around, enough attention, enough guidance, enough food even. Adolescence brings a stark awareness of the differences between one's self and others that can prove to be the last straw. "The more attention required for physical survival, the less is left to discover paths of growth (p. 269).

When I designed the program "Sharing Good Vibrations" with a colleague of mine, we had many exciting plans. He is a musician as well as a physicist. He knows about recording music on the computer, something we thought the kids would love to do. Our class consisted of building a drum, a fairly involved project that included using power tools, tuning a real goatskin drum head, as well as designing and painting the sound tube of the drum. We helped the kids with all these tasks with great patience. When it came times to make music, and Carl brought along a synthesizer and his laptop, the kids became sullen and withdrew. To try and reengage them, I began to play simple games like banging out a rhythm and calling someone's name "This is what I think Megan sounds like" now Megan you go. Before long an hour had passed and the energy in the room was light and happy. My big high schoolers needed to touch base with the neglected and hungry five year olds inside them. We made the rhythm game a part of every class after that and although we planned and carried out a drum circle at the high school and the kids exhibited their drums proudly, we never got to the computer, or synthesizer or sampling tracks and burning a CD.

The transitional aspect of adolescence requires that we return somehow to "touch base" with the primal state before proceeding. If that five year old never had anyone play that way with her, this stage will take quite awhile and should be joyfully accepted as important work of reparation, a task for which the expressive arts are especially suited. There is no way to talk about having an inner ache and emptiness without taking what may be felt as much too big a risk, but in the context of art, all is possible and the metaphor of the image can hold so much. Megan made a pillow in art class. She didn't know exactly why. She used computer transfer paper to embellish it with photos of small children. Psychologists might call this a transitional object. As an artist I see much more. I had been working on some pillows in my effort to explore and redefine the "women's work" of sewing. Several of these were around the studio. Megan referenced my work and reinvented the idea of a comfort object, a latter -day stuffed toy that I bet stats on her bed forever. Here in the studio she is able to create her own nourishment, relate artist to artist and be a leader among her peers in expressing tender feelings. The same girl who also chose for her photo project with disposable cameras to document one weekend's drug use. The studio holds everything. As an artist I am willing to witness the reality of these kids life, not just the socially acceptable aspects, be cause art is about truth.

Ideally, the adolescent is guided by elders through meaningful rites of passage, emerging out the other side with a new identity and purpose. Adolescents need to have this transition orchestrated and celebrated with appropriate risks and challenges. What we give them is driver's ed and high school. They get specialized learning, pass tests, receive honors but something is missing on a very important level, the level of feeling. There are vestiges: sports teams, cross-town rivalries, and the school play. But let's face it, Denzel Washington aside, even the best high school football coach is no shaman, a winning season is not a vision quest, in fact, in stead of being a passage to a new identity, the adolescent is told: these are your glory days, its all down hill from here. You're a has-been the day after that championship game.

In summary, because the expressive arts have built in risks and safe ways to alter consciousness, they are an ideal antidote to what society currently offers to the at risk adolescent, a panoply of dangerous options that put body and soul in peril or watered down experiences meant to be safe which are far from effective. We can help kids build worthy crafts in which to sail dangerously close to the rocks, we can also help them make maps of the territory. But this brings me to another point that feels very important. Are we, the adults, willing to be elders? Are we willing to be honest, true guides who take our own risks, dissolve our own outworn identities, fight to make the world a better place for our youth? We need opportunities for elders and youngsters to be together and speak the truth. There is no better arena for this than the art studio, the dance troupe, the drum circle. Patricia Hersch says: "Kids need adults who bear witness to the details of their lives and count them as something·they need appreciation for who they are" (p. 363). When I create alongside adolescents and read my words aloud, I take a risk, not just the risk of my so-called authority, in fact that is no risk at all. My authority, my credibility with kids comes from the fact that they see my art, my struggles, my truth. The risk I take is that the unfinished adolescent in me is in the room and wakes up around these kids. All our unfinished dreams, our unmourned losses, all the fears and insecurities that abounded in me the teenager are suddenly present alongside me the artist, me, the mom, me the well trained art therapist. I suggest to you that it is to keep that person under wraps that so many parents avoid their adolescent kids. It is unconscious, not meant to be harmful but let's face it, pretty much everyone lurched through adolescence, touched down somewhere on drugs, alcohol, sex and got past the rough spots maybe but there's plenty of unfinished business there for just about everyone. We can view that as an opportunity or something to fear. But the art space can give us the solvents to loosen our worn out masks and the absolution we crave in the presence of the kids we want so badly to love.


Allen, P.B., (1995). Art is a way of knowing. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Ayto, J. (1990). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Campbell, J. (1974). The mythic image. Princeton, N.J,: Princeton U. Press.

Carl Jung's letter to Bill Wilson, (1961). www.barefootsworld.net/jungletter

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1984). Being adolescent.

Dodd, V. (2004). Turning blues to gold: Soundprints. Wovenword.com

Gilligan, C. , ed. (1990) Making connections. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press.

Hersch, P. (1995). A tribe apart.

Pollock, W. (1998). Real boys. New York: Henry Holt.

Youth Risk Behavior Study Oklahoma (2003). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Division of Adolescent and School Health.


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