The Value of Experiential Therapy for Young Clients


A young woman is out on an outing during experiential therapy.

Those who work with adolescents who have substance abuse or mental health diagnoses are acutely aware that they do not always want to talk about their lives. Helping them open up involves not only gaining their trust but demonstrating respect for them as well. Even then, they may struggle with verbally communicating their experiences and problems. One of the ways to help them learn to express themselves is to give them hands-on therapeutic experiences — or experiential therapy.

What Is Experiential Therapy?

Technically, experiential therapy is any type of activity during which hands-on methods are utilized to engage a client and help them to grow, develop new skills, and develop a rapport with their therapist to facilitate healing. For example, many therapists will engage in play therapy with younger children or challenge older clients by playing such fun activities as board games, checkers, or chess. The client gradually becomes more comfortable with the therapist and setting, and as they play, they are able to talk and eventually discuss more serious topics.

Another level of experiential therapy involves technically trained therapists who learn specific methods of therapies relating to their category of experiences, such as art or music therapy. Some types of experiential therapy are still considered complementary therapies, while others are evidence-based therapeutic methods. Which type of therapy is used may be important to clients, families, and employers. Training for licensed therapists is often minimal, as it is a natural extension of whole-person therapy. By using experiences that include the whole person, therapy is more effective, and both client and therapist can have more impactful experiences.

What Are Different Types of Experiential Therapy?

There is a whole range of experiential therapy, from simply offering a distraction in order to facilitate verbal therapy to intensive experiences that require expertise and understanding of both the experience and the therapeutic methods to be effective. Some of the most commonly used forms are:

  • Art Therapy – creating and analyzing art to understand and express emotions
  • Music Therapy – listening to or participating in music to process or express feelings
  • Animal Therapy, Especially Equine Therapy – learning to care for and develop bonds with animals without the pressure of verbal interactions
  • Dance or Exercise Therapy – using movement to process and release emotions
  • Role-Playing – allowing clients to process their thoughts and emotions by using different viewpoints
  • Drama Therapy or Psychodrama – allowing clients to rehearse healthy behaviors and emotions and express themselves without judgment or fear
  • Adventure Therapy – building emotional courage and confidence by experiencing perceived or real risk-taking experiences
  • Wilderness Therapy – the opportunity to be outdoors and develop resilience and flexibility while discovering more about themselves
  • Guided Imagery – using specific imagery and scenarios that help clients bring emotions and experiences to the surface

Why Is Hands-On Therapy More Effective for Teens?

Using hands-on experiences removes the pressure of a structured setting and traditional talk therapy. For adolescents who have different forms of trauma or have various types of mental health diagnoses, experiential therapy can help them access feelings and emotions that are not easily accessed through verbal communication. Using experiences rather than simply sitting and talking helps to lower social and emotional guards and is often much faster and more effective than traditional talk therapy.

How Can Experiential Therapy Benefit My Client?

For many teens, the experiences themselves can be life-changing. Many types of experiential therapy offer opportunities and experiences they may not have had access to before. These experiences allow them to not only process their emotions in different ways but also have more powerful therapeutic experiences.

Experiential therapies also offer the opportunity to cultivate new interests and inspire new hobbies or talents. Hands-on activities give clients a tangible sense of accomplishment and purpose in addition to the emotionally healing benefits. Some clients also physically benefit from movement and building new skills.

Is Becoming Licensed for Experiential Therapy Necessary?

Obviously, using simple hands-on experiences such as playing chess does not require more than a traditional therapeutic license and perhaps some decent chess-playing skills. However, most facilities require their therapists to be licensed in order to advertise experiential therapies, particularly those that are evidence-based. Clients and their families will want professional experiences and care as well as results.

While not being licensed in a specific form of experiential therapy does not prevent you from offering experiences to your clients, being licensed will help boost your credentials and become more hireable. Taking the time to study and develop new skills yourself also helps you to become a better person and therapist for both you and your clients.

Offering your teen clients experiential therapy can help improve the efficiency and duration of your client’s healing. By offering hands-on experiences, you can help your teen clients have new experiences, develop confidence and new skills, as well as have more effective healing. Becoming licensed in experiential therapies can also improve your career and your own life. Our programs at Sustain Recovery offer extended residential care to teens with addiction and mental health diagnoses. We focus on developing accountability and independence in a structured environment with staff who are passionate about helping teens to grow and heal. We offer music therapy, adventure learning, and Mixed Martial Arts/Boxing to improve our quality of care and help reach adolescents more effectively. If you have a client that you want to have these experiential therapies in addition to traditional residential care, call our Irvine, California, facility at (949) 407-9052 to learn more about our programs.