Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out




         Creating a Safe Place for adolescents in Art Therapy
                                                                Judith Siano, M.A

My presentation will show a 16 minute video of a “Totem” workshop in a forest
with 27 adolescents, all traumatized children living in a boarding school, because
their necessaries of life were not met by their former environments (street, violent
For many years I have been preoccupied by the adolescent’s needs for creativity
and expression. I recognized their need for ritual and the creation of a “safe
place”, metaphorically, symbolically and concretely. Their creativity in this
workshop is impressive, so is their childlike expression of joy and freedom. At
the same time, they tell us, verbally and wordless, their personal story with a
revealing depth.

   Judith Siano, M.A., Art therapist, is a lecturer at the Haifa University and a certified
   supervisor in the Israeli Association of Art Therapists.


In this article I invite you to join me as we enter a magical arena, at once new and ancient – to
research it, to try to understand it and to be helped by it. Throughout my life there have been
significant focal points which gradually lead me to my own very personal “Concept of Totem”.
It is this that I would like to share with you. The following pages will present five aspects of
the totem and its therapeutic meaning when working with adolescents:
1)           Adolescents and their need for rituals.
2)           Totemism – an ethnological and psychological review.
3)           The totem in modern art.
4)           ‘Primitivism’ in therapy.
5)           The totem in my therapy studio.

    The first stage of therapy is dedicated to building the therapeutic relationship. This is an
essential basis for establishing mutual trust between therapist and patient. Art therapy affords
the rare opportunity to concretely symbolize this safe place. I have called the safe place and its
reflections in artworks “Totem”. I will attempt to demonstrate, using theory and experience,
the meaning of the totem to adolescent patients who, over time, have become my teachers.

    Generally, this period is characterized by tensions, pressures, and emotional outbursts. It
is a time of upheaval and irrational behavior, most of which is impulsive. The adolescent is
characterized by sudden transitions from restrained, non-indulgent behavior to free, impulse-
driven actions. An interest in religion is developed. Does this phenomenon represent a
regression of magical thinking or is it an outburst of renewed strength to be used in coping
with life?
    The need to reach an unified identity motivates the adolescent, via trial and error, to find a
defined social identity. Identity must be searched for and acquired through a persistent and
constant process. Not wanting or not being able to work towards a creation of an identity
implies a lack of an established self, which could result in an emotional vacuum and continual
sense of isolation and confusion (Moss, 1994).

                                Losing Me – Aviv Geffen (1994)
   Swimming in the pool of death,                 On the small balcony
   Is a very hard time to live.                   I want to be touched.
   Confusion trapped within my heart,             Tell me why the neighbors
   Fenced in by anxieties.                        Always look so happy,
   You are losing me.                             You are losing me.
   That doesn’t mean I do not love you,           That doesn’t mean I do not love you
   Because I do, because I do.                    Because I do, because I do. Because I do.

    The need for heroes is especially prominent in adolescence. Parents, the childhood heroes,
are no longer perfect, and become the cause of conflict. The rebellious youth rejects their
values and their attempts to interfere in private affairs. A search for an other hero’s images
    The young worshipper does not necessarily see what the hero actually does, but rather is
interested in how the idol looks. Looks and dress allow space for the expression of fetishes.
For example, one of my 14 – year old clients bought red patent-leather pants, despite her
father’s veto, because “they were exactly like Aviv Geffen’s” (an Israeli pop singer, see lyrics

    Parental confrontations leave the adolescent isolated and apprehensive. Thus a search for
support ensues, mainly within the existing peer group. This is a source of peer group strength,
characterized by obsessive, conformist behavior. They join street gangs, wear provocative,
ragged clothes, tattoo themselves, indulge in piercing their bodies and show off all kinds of
make-up and accessories that serve to identify them with various groups (see paragraph 2,
    Not all adolescents go through worrisome levels of crisis. A supportive environment
(parents, teachers and friends) helps most of them get through this period without being
harmed. They turn into adaptive and contributing adults.
    But sometimes the normal stream of life is interrupted (or, perhaps, there was no normal
stream!). At times, yesterday’s past leads to today’s crisis (Siano, 1997, 1998). Tomorrow
looms at the doorstep like a frightening, black cloud, a void or intolerable life-responsibility.
The adolescent must choose between destruction and construction, and the difference between
the two is not totally clear. In this vacuum the need for ritual increases, and is expressed in the
growing need for a hero, idol, father, anti-father, spirit…
    Adolescence is an intermediate stage in which play turns to work. In art therapy a
significant part of the work is play (Johnson, 1990). Therefore I can rightly be accused of
living in the space held by transition. I like to play, am still skeptical of authority, do not feel
totally accepted and invest much energy in rebellion. There is a special relationship between
art therapy and adolescents. Their sensitivity and defensiveness, stubbornness and fragility
require special and sensitive attention. Their need for privacy is often manifest in their refusal
to share their thoughts with us. Therefore our material offers an outlet. The creative process
includes all of the outbursts and pressures that have no place in the world of words. Instead of
talking about emotions, emotions are contained and accepted in the artwork. The studio as a
safe place, allows the adolescent to control emotional outbursts, which if not contained would
be suppressed and depressed. Here, however, a corrective process is presented, enabling a
new chance for making the right personal choices.

    2. Totemism – An Ethnological and Psychological View
    The totem is the object that serves as a solution for the entire extended family. It is
considered the family’s ancestral father, god and tribal symbol, and is granted honor
accordingly. Freud (1940) wrote that the totem symbolizes the patriarch, the founding father
who is supposed to protect all, while continuing to command awe. The word ‘totem’ means
    As a sign of identifying with the totem, the tribe members carry furs, teeth, etc. with them,
thus implementing an important rule “pars pro toto”, the part which represents the whole The
pars pro toto principle is the determining factor in the thinking of primitive peoples and
children. For example, a person destroys the enemy by obtaining its hair and fingernails and
doing away with them. It can also be an amulet, a symbol of some other powerful, protective
entity, often replacing of a loved one.
    Hans Zulliger, teacher and psychologist, was also an anthropologist. In his book The
Therapeutic Powers of Child Play (1967) he contends that we all undergo a totem stage which
is especially sensitive to suppression and then forgotten. The totem phenomena appear
spontaneously in games during adolescence, sometimes explicitly and other times implicitly,
always affecting the thinking process. Zulliger was aware of the definite similarity between
children’s behavior and totem customs among primitive peoples.
    As soon as these kinds of feelings appear, the adult attempts to put an end to them, to
prevent them and even to punish the children for presenting them. The children become aware
of the adults’ opposition, and they then keep the games a secret. Are we threatened and do we
sense that these games may awaken suppressed, frightening emotions? If this is the situation,
then we are fighting to re-suppress the totemism within us. Perhaps to us, our children’s

games are sacrilegious, even though they certainly have no such intentions. Even if we do not
attach any significant meaning to totemism, it may still greatly influence the adolescent’s
developing personality.

    3. The Totem in Modern Art
    The term “primitivism” is used to signify the stimuli presented by the cultures of natural
peoples (totem cultures, included) which affect the thinking and creative processes of modern
artists. Picasso, for example, was one such artist. Works of Klee, Brancusi, Giacometti,
Moore, Miro and Beuys reflect such influence, as well as modern genres such as dada,
surrealism, German expressionism, Italian art after futurism, and approaches to conceptual art
– they all represent different reactions to the ideas of primitivism (consider Beuys’ “A
Shamanism with Coyote”).

    “Therapeutic Primitivism”
    I would like to add a few words concerning “therapeutic primitivism”:
    (True healers, please, forgive me!)
    In recent years the Shaman has won regard among emotional health professionals who
draw an analogy between psychotherapy and shamanism. Perhaps it has to do with a hope for
redemption, by employing foreign, different therapeutic methods that offer a spiritual
element. Shamanism has become an in-vogue word for an unregulated and hazardous area:
anyone from a rock star to a psychotherapist can be called a shaman, as long as the issues are
greed, desire and spirit, and all of these are accompanied by good public relations. The
client’s needs and demands stand the risk of turning objects and totems into artificial,
fraudulent trinkets, promising salvation but ending in disappointment… if one is lucky
(Zuend, 1990). These objects, if only we were to listen to them, could tell us magical stories!
For it is not the technique that is therapeutic, but the warm, authentic presence of therapist,
and the respect offered to the patient.
    What connection is there between creative therapy and this ancient tradition? When trying
to reach a solidified professional identity we must strive to correctly combine science and
soul, logic and magic. We must re-study each individual who approaches us for help,
examining accompanying beliefs and cultures. We must re-learn our own origins, beliefs and

    4. The Totem in my Therapy Room.
    At the entrance to my therapy room is a large totem, created by our “tribe’, all of my
family. A twelve-year old boy created my doorman, a smaller, but not weaker, totem. The boy
was afraid. He had made the totem to protect him on lonely nights when he was forced to
leave the bed and room he shared with his mother, and wait in the street until the mother’s
clients would leave. After he moved into safe quarters, he brought me his totem: “this is to
protect you. I already have him on my insides!”
    A totem is a metaphor, symbol, safe place, a tool for the art therapist that can be
interpreted in many fields: worshippers, believers, anthropologists, artists, art-history
researchers, critics, children and people like me. It is an internal and external source of
energy, and there are those who grant it powers beyond the spiritual, supernatural (making it
rain, determining fates…). For me, as a person and as an art therapist, the totem is in every
creation, a representation of the protective and destructive powers in man. It is a visual
reflection of what exists and the true internal voice. I belong to the “primitive” believers in
totem, and this is my personal interpretation. It is my privilege, for the word “totem” has no
    One of my dearest patients offered to write a conclusion for this article, presenting her
personal interpretation:

     Quiet! Silence! I am standing at the top of a high mountain ledge. A desert is spread out
beneath me, peaceful, colorless. Throughout my childhood I belonged to a wild tribe. I know
how to differentiate between right and wrong. But I live in a modern, cultured society, which
has formulated social rules on the one hand, and destroyed instincts with the other.
     In kindergarten I was taught to honor thy father and mother. In school my teacher asked
my father to give a lecture in my class: “Tolerance and Peace with our Neighbors and
Ourselves”. She says, “he is such an intelligent man”. And all of the other adults nod their
heads. - After my parents get divorced, there is a meeting at school. “Why don’t you go to
visit your father?” I turn pale. Everyone is looking at me. “You surely would get a lot out of
the visits”. I look at them from below. I am furious and don’t know why I don’t visit my father,
but the Bedouin girl, the Indian and wild jungle tribe girl, assure me somewhere inside me,
that that is what they do, too.
     That is how I grow up, using good manners, feeling terrible and not being able to belong.
Civilized children should enjoy their homes. They like kisses on the cheek and goodnight
hugs. And me? A rebellious little girl, not giving in to touch and suffering from anxiety attacks
every time when I am supposed to enjoy with my parents. I have difficulty finding meaning to
this life. Life is dead.- I went through adolescence looking for hints of the existence of the
Indians, this gave me hope that was a breath of fresh air. The few consultations that I had
with counselors were like strokes of death for me. It all had to do with irrelevant symptomatic
details: Disturbing class, problems in maths. “ Why don’t you talk about it with your father?”
Over and over again they were not interested in seeing or listening. They were as afraid as I
was of my terrifying story, of the burning flame in my stomach. Will anyone ever have the
courage to see the whole of me?
     I reached art therapy at the age of 21. Wary, cautious, tired of searching, on the verge of
giving up. For five years I have intentionally been eating and vomiting. I feel addicted. I want
to stop, but cannot. We meet on the path to her studio. Opposite me stands a member of a
primitive tribe. We go into her room and I feel that I have come home. The materials and
colors, the masks and the totem. It all sends me regards from my brothers and sisters in the
jungles, deserts and rain forests.
     Judith looks at me without flinching. She does not let any of the symptoms divert from the
main issue – the flame. She looks back directly at the pain, the fear, the ear-splitting scream.
I dare tell her about my vomiting. Guilt feelings suffocate my throat.
     Is she going to take me to the hospital? “Those mechanisms protect us, and we need to
respect them”, she says. The vomiting stopped.
     I permit her to hold my hand and we go together on the hardest and most tiring journey in
the world – inside my past. The journey is guided by a paintbrush, paints and clay. I am
certain that they never lie, that they reveal only the truth. The paintbrush tells me stories
about myself – The ones that until now I could not listen to without dying. It is like a sword. It
draws life-and death pictures for me. It often helps me progress, when I stand opposite the
naked paper, shaking, fragile and scared. My drawings are like a child’s. Scribbles, splotches
of color, meaningless swirls. Sometimes it feels like my stomach is holding the brush, and not
my hand. A civilized person would be flustered by the drawings. Judith and the Bedouin say:
“go on”.
     We look for reasons, using paint and materials. What is that ruining my life, so totally,
affecting every vein and nerve in my body? It affects my voice, the way I walk, eat and talk.
Where is all the anger from, the suffocation and shortness of breath?
     The paintbrush asks me, running crazily across the page: “Do you really want to know?
I’ll tell you: When you were a little girl your father would touch you, sleep with you, abuse
you.” Father would get me dirty. The Bedouin, the Indian, the daughter of the primitive tribe,
the civilized girl, me – we are all sitting next to the totem and crying.

     The terrifying experiences I had from the perverted relationship with my father had been
totally suppressed. Totems – that I see as clues from the world of truth – gave me hope that
there is another way to experience and understand reality. Getting to that ruthless truth is the
key to a sane life in the future. To do so I had to listen attentively to the finest voices that
came from my insides, and believe in them. It was extremely difficult for me to overcome this
inborn, naïve need to believe that my father was a good smart man who loved, protected and
cared for me.
    It frightens me to think what would have happened had I not met someone who dared
discover this deep, ugly, festering wound; who healed me with such great belief by using the
totem, color and materials.
    You already understand that Indians have their own wisdom: If you try to touch one hair
from the tiger’s mustache, he will eat you alive. Look straight into the tiger’s eyes, and then
you may have a chance of turning it into your guard. And who knows – you may end up taking
a trip around the forest riding on its back!

Geffen, A. (1994)     Losing me. Aviv Geffen III: Hed Arzi.
Freud, S. (1940).     Totem und Tabu. Gesammelte Werke. London: Imago Publishing.
Johnson, D.R. (1990). Introduction to the Special Issue on the Creative Arts Therapie s with
                      Adolescents. The Arts in Psychotherapy 17: 97-99.
Muuss, R.E. (1994). Theories of Adolescence. Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim Publishing House.
Siano, J. (1997).     A therapeutic process in art therapy using the phenomenological
                      approach for an emotionally traumatized adolescent. University of
                      Haifa, Faculty of Education.
Siano, J. (1998).     Drawing is a Vessel for the Soul: The Unique Role of Art Therapy in
                      Adolescents with Childhood Trauma. “ISER” Issues in Special
                      Education & Rehabilitation. University of Haifa, Faculty of Education.
Zulliger, H. (1967). Heilende Kraefte im Kindlichen Spiel. Stuttgart: Klett.
Zuend, M.Z. (1990) Ueber Kunst, Besessenheit und Therapie. Forum: Schweizerischer
                      Fachverband fuer Gestaltende Psychotherapie und Kunsttherapie. 3.
                      Jahrgang, Heft 2.


                                      Judith Siano M.A.
                           Art Therapist and Registered Supervisor
                              Head of Supervision and Lecturer
              At the training program for art therapists at the Haifa University
                            8, Holland Street, 34987 Haifa, Israel
                        Tel. 00972-4-8252802, Fax 00972-4-8247869


To top