How I Became Interested in Animal-Assisted Play Therapy
For a period of time at a Residential Treatment Center I worked at it was ‘bring your dog to work day’ any day you felt like it. So I, having just gotten a dog myself, was super excited when he reached the four-month mark and was allowed to come. This was a very selfish goal of mine. I wanted to bring my puppy to work–how amazing would that be? What I didn’t know was how effective Porter’s personality would be with these youth who had such extreme behaviors.
Dogs are Great Listeners
Their aversion to talking about their feelings based on their history of neglect and abuse was pronounced, but when you put a dog in the room (and one who was fluffy and friendly and calm… almost never) you are able to help them feel comfortable enough to process what hurt them in order to build skills to help them make it through their days.
I saw hardened, aggressive, outwardly mean teens melt to the floor with this puppy in their lap. And as he licked their faces they giggled. Now, as a play therapist I believe there is inherent good in all people, especially children. Porter just helps bring it out a little faster than I can.
Dogs Can’t Call You a Piece of Shit.
And so it’s a lot easier to build a relationship with a kind, friendly animal and transfer that relationship to its kind, friendly therapeutic handler. It’s harder for teens and kids to take the look a dog is giving them and interpret judgmental words out of it. If they do, they usually mention it to the handler. However, when I raise an eyebrow, or open my eyes wide in interest, they are less likely to ask me whether I approve of them, even if I am expressing genuine curiosity in the moment. This blunt inquiry takes much more time in human relationships.
Kind and Friendly, Yes, But He’s Also A Goof
No, Porter is not the perfect therapy dog. He won’t be visiting an ‘old folks’ home’ or hospital anytime soon– he is just too wiggly. But for children who struggle to maintain their behavior, who struggle to stay calm, and who struggle to slow down, he gives them the perfect opportunity to be the teacher. They can feel proud of what they know they are capable of doing. And Porter continues to learn as he grows out of his lab-puppyhood, which may or may not take a decade.
In focusing on the neuroscience of the field, I hope this post helps increase your understanding of the purpose of using playful means to engage your child/teen.
Recent research in the field of play therapy has focused on the impact of play therapy on brain development. Stewart, Field and Echterling (2016) discuss play as an “emotionally engaging and creative experience that increases levels of oxytocin” in the brain. This hormone fosters feelings of emotional health and connection, supporting the therapeutic relationship. As I create and support a playful environment with my clients, they feel more relaxed, and can then open up more deeply in their treatment.
Without this ability to relax in the session, children and teens would not be able to use their imagination to consider the possibility for behavioral change. Instead, we might see a teen who will “yes” me to death without truly considering trying the skills I am teaching, or a child who feels like he/she is in trouble, and thus denies the need for support altogether by shutting down when he/she enters the office or playroom.
Play therapy is a more developmentally appropriate treatment for children compared to talk therapy (Stewart, Field, & Echterling, 2016). Children learn through play, and thus need the opportunity to generalize their skills in the moment, as opposed to applying a lesson learned earlier in session without practice. Through play therapy, I help build self-awareness and provide an environment for change by verbalizing what I see/hear in session, a process called reflecting. This mindful approach of reflecting encourages the child/teen to pay attention to his/her actions and the impact they have on their own environment.
In using a neuroscience-based approach, I focus on helping children and teens manage their emotions by integrating their right-brain (creative, emotional, expressive) and left-brain (logical, rule-oriented, analytical) functions through playful skills teaching. Play therapy helps youth let their filter down in the conscious, verbal, rigid left side of the brain to express their inner emotions (right side of the brain) within the safety of our relationship. Integration is required for the possibility of creative problem solving, a skill one needs to cope with life’s challenges with less frustration and more persistence.
The mirror neurons in the child mimic my calm, patient demeanor, allowing a child to be patient with themselves as their inner emotions work to make sense of stressful events. They can then persist through difficult topic discussion or play across various sessions and generate more effective reactions to stressful events (Stewart, Field, & Echterling, 2016).
Looking for more information on play therapy’s impact on the brain? Let me know in the comments!
Stewart, A., Field, T., & Echterling, L. (2016). Neuroscience and the magic of play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 25 (1) 4-13.
“So you just play with my kid? I can do that!”
Not exactly. Just like talk therapy is not just talking, play therapy is not just playing. Play therapists create an environment with carefully selected toys to allow your child to express him/herself and his/her feelings. Play is a child’s language (Landreth 2012). Children express what they learn through their play and make sense of their world through reenacting scenarios they’ve experienced through play.
Remember playing house or grocery store as a kid? You were organizing social rules, responsibilities, and stereotypical gender roles as you did so. In playing cops and robbers you created a situation in which you felt powerful. All children feel a sense of powerlessness over their world, as they are dependent on adults to survive. Play allows them to reconcile this need to be in charge.
My training and experience helps me build a child’s self-awareness while she plays. I focus on building a trusting relationship, and your child feels heard and understood. As a result, she sees less of a need to act out to express her feelings. She is also more likely to develop an emotional vocabulary as she hears me use feelings words to describe the emotions exhibited in her play.
With child-centered play therapy she is in the lead in the playroom. There is no pressure for her to perform a certain way, learn a specific topic, or perfect a specific skill. She has the opportunity to experiment with behaving in a safe manner to find her own way to express herself. Before she gets there, however, she may need to be aggressive, get messy, or act like a baby in her play sessions to express her need to act younger than her age. She can do that in the play session without correction and with little redirection. (I set limits only focused on safety and protecting the toys from destruction).
Play therapy is like writing a book report—in session I’m reporting on the plot, including the feelings she expresses, and in my head I’m teasing out the themes, and metaphors across in your child’s play sessions. This helps me determine progress and skills, and translate that to parents and other involved adults.
In practicing safe emotional expression in an environment where she feels understood, she can gain confidence to do so out in the ‘real world’. These accomplishments are much like what occurs in a successful adult therapy relationship, just with a different approach tailored to the child’s soul.
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