Here is a great parenting tip for the New Year, choose a horse as a therapist for your teenager who is needs help. Horses have all the qualities and skills it takes to reach teens in trouble and help them change.
I have rarely seen a teenager who welcomed psychotherapy with open arms. Most teens hesitate to share their problems with adults. First of all, teens worry that going for help or, worse, being brought for help, means that they are being identified as THE PROBLEM. Actually this fear is not unfounded as teenagers often become the “identified patient” when a family is in trouble. Second of all, teens who are struggling can feel overwhelmed with anxiety, anger and depression and pressured by parental and societal expectations. Many, if not most, do not fully understand what is wrong and cannot readily answer the questions posed in adult talk therapy. Finally, teens have concerns about whether their conversations with a therapist are really confidential. Again this is not an unrealistic fear due to the fact that parents have the right to some information about a child’s therapy and the therapist may be released to speak with the school counselor and/or the pediatrician. Given all these factors, teens have heightened resistance to sharing their problems with adults. They often require months of trust building to open up or they may defeat the efforts of a human therapist all together.
Enter the horse therapist with the modality of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
Horses have qualities that help teenagers blossom in the course of mental health treatment and experience healing and growth.
Horses are authentic and not afraid to communicate.
Horses are highly relational and cut to the chase. They are perceptive and attuned and mirror their clients with surprising accuracy. I am reminded of a teenage girl who was referred with a “rap sheet” of conduct problems and a label of being “untreatable” in traditional talk therapy. I was astounded when even the most cautious of the therapy horses immediately responded to her with enthusiasm and trust. Of course this was incredibly empowering and reassuring for her as she had almost lost hope that anyone could see her inner strengths and potential for change.
Horses set ground rules for respect.
Horse herds include complicated social relationships. Interactions among the members are based on clear rules about power, physical boundaries and personal space. There is a hierarchy and behavior has consequences. Many teens who come for help have never experienced healthy boundaries or respect for personal space. Some feel helpless and do not know how to demand respect. Others are out of control and do not know how to show respect. Observing and participating in interactions with horses is usually an amazing learning experience.
One teen I worked with was surprised when a horse stopped and waited when I held up my hand face out. When I explained that the horse was showing respect, he said he had never known exactly “what respect looks like.”
Horse have problems too.
Horses readily demonstrate a variety of troublesome emotions and problematic behaviors similar to those humans exhibit including anger, jealousy, bullying and possessiveness. Teens find it uncomfortable to acknowledge such problems directly, and being able to observe and reflect on the horse allows them to identify and discuss these problems without defensiveness.
Horses like to run with the herd.
Horses love nothing more than to hang out with their friends. Just like teens, they feel that the herd is the source of security and protection. A chance to become part of the horse herd and to engage in simple acts of grooming and cleaning tack models responsibility and is comforting and calming to teens who are in turmoil.
Horses make therapy fun.
Horses have positive energy, graceful motion and joy. Animal assisted therapy is fun! It helps teens overcome constricted emotions, learned helplessness and negative thought patterns. They are encouraged to be playful, to think outside the box, let go of shame, blame and self-consciousness and get to work finding creative solutions