Research has shown that Animal Assisted Therapy is a very helpful tool in treating adolescents with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorders. The most primary goal of AAT is to help strengthen and promote teens’ emotional, cognitive, and social functioning, through the work they engage in with animals. Our Animal Assisted Therapy program at Paradigm Malibu has shown time and again to help teens to openly engage in the treatment process, to gain insight into their own behaviors and consequences, to learn how to better communicate and function in relationships, and to improve their sense of social awareness.
In essence, Animal Assisted Therapy is rooted in the Biophilia Hypothesis which suggests that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was historically, partly dependent on an ability to notice and interpret signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. In other words, it was useful for people to be aware of the environment around them in order to protect their own lives, including clues they might pick up from plants or animals. Because of this, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this in turn signals us to experience feeling safety, security and other feelings of well being on both conscious and subconscious levels. Therefore, by teens engaging in regular caring for and interaction with animals, they often gain a sense of comfort and ease, making it easier for them to soften and open up to their treatment process.
Though Animal Assisted Therapy can serve a number of different needs, it can be especially useful for teens that struggle with social interaction, for any number of reasons. Sometimes, for example, a psychiatric condition might negatively effect the part of the brain that allows teens to interact with other people, but interestingly does not impede the part of the brain that allows them to interact with animals. Therefore, when animals are incorporated as part of the teens’ therapy, teens have an easier time gaining back these interaction skills than if only the therapist was present. This is why Animal Assisted Therapy is a very successful in treating Teen Autism as well as other Teenage Anxiety Disorders in which teens have difficulty communicating to and relating with others.
Another basic use of Animal Assisted Therapy is simply to provide an enjoyable, safe setting for the teens to engage in within the treatment process. Very often when teens are struggling with Mental Health or Substance Abuse Disorders, they may feel judged or project their own negative feelings about themselves onto others, which makes them nervous to open up and participate. Because animals provide a consistent, steady presence and have no pre-set notions, expectations, or judgments, they can help teens to feel comfortable, enjoy themselves, and even gain insights into crucial aspects of their treatment and recovery processes.
As with all different aspects of our adolescent treatment, including the implementation of Animal Assisted Therapy, all of our treatment plans at Paradigm Malibu are carefully designed according to the individual teen and their particular needs, symptoms, strengths, interests, and goals. Because of this, our Animal Assisted Therapy sessions might look different according to the particular teen, but can be used in both individual and group therapy sessions to address a number of different needs and goals. When designing Animal Assisted Therapy sessions, the therapist might include activities designed to help teens improve social skills, verbal communication, practice physical skills and/or giving commands, and work with the animal in order to achieve a specific goal.
Animal Assisted Therapy can help teens to feel less stressed, decrease anxiety, become more cooperative and open, gain confidence, and improve interaction with others. Teens can also grow in their empathy toward others as well as their willingness to take responsibility for their own actions. Lastly and quite simply, Animal Assisted Therapy provides teens with an enjoyable, comforting aspect to their treatment process, which is especially powerful during what can be a very challenging time.