Most troubled young people in therapeutic programs would probably never agree that working with animals would prove to be the most useful and favorite part of their treatment. But, that is exactly what research has found to be true.
The term “troubled” can refer to so many different issues, whether emotional, behavioral or psychological. The teen’s problems may range from mild to severe, they may have experimented with drugs or alcohol, become addicted, or be dealing with academic difficulties as well as family problems and social difficulties. Regardless of their issues, spending time with animals, especially in a residential treatment situation, seems to be a very effective therapeutic tool.
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is fast becoming a significant way for troubled teens (even those who are depressed or at-risk of self-harm or a danger to others) to breakthrough issues and to develop skills that will enable them to deal with anger issues and events, express and accept love, communicate better with family and friends, etc.
The animals often become a safe transitional vehicle for these teens to learn how to form healthy bonds and begin to trust. Taking on responsibility for the care of the animals is also an important element in this program and can be a real boost to the young person’s self-esteem.
AAT is not just kids hanging out with domestic pets, it is a formal, structured program in which the teens interact with professionally trained animals, usually dogs and horses but in some programs parrots, miniature goats, llamas, miniature donkeys and cows may be involved.
In many therapeutic programs, the teens’ interactions with animals help them deal with deep emotional issues. Because they have so often been disappointed by themselves and/or other people, experiencing the non-judgemental acceptance and companionship, the intimacy and inclusion from these animals is a revelation which can result in an emotional breakthrough that helps begin their emotional healing.
The physical contact, the returned affection and unquestioned loyalty from the animal can help the teen to feel a connection and personal bond with another living creature, perhaps for the first time in their lives. A similar connection with another human wouldn’t happen as the teen is likely to see them as a threat rather than a potentially friendly ally.
Even 10 or 15 minutes spent with an animal friend can reduce the amount of cortisol and increase the level of endorphins in the body and since troubled teens are often in a nearly constant state of stress and/or emotional arousal, working with animals can help calm them. ATT can therefore help the troubled young person to discover that a gentle and quiet attitude will get them better results with the animal (and perhaps people) than the aggressive behavior they may normally exhibit.
In these residential programs, young people often interact with the animals in fun, recreational activities as well, therefore opening up other avenues in which they can learn to deal with their problems, learn about themselves and work toward a better, healthier future.
For more information about animal assisted therapy included their residential treatment programs, contact The Pinnacle Schools Elk River Treatment Program.