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Animals help ease the burden for children in therapy

Photo: Animals help ease the burden for children in therapy
Mental health professionals working with children should consider incorporating outside-the-box therapies into their treatment plans to help ease the natural fears and anxiety commonly experienced by young patients.

“Treating a child is considerably different than treating adults,” says psychotherapist, Dr Karen Phillip.

“Children do not have the developed mind ability to logicise, understand or disclose what they may truly feel.

“Often, they are unable to link the words to how they feel.

“Children can tell a practitioner what they think the practitioner wants to know and this can create additional anxiety in the child, further preventing true disclosure.

“Children may not understand their own feelings or emotions, and some may be told not to tell the therapist certain truths.
“This is when a trained therapist can aid the child to safely talk about what is happening to them or in their life.”

Increasingly, therapists are incorporating treatment methods such as sand play therapy, clay therapy and drawing or art therapy, to help encourage children to engage.

“These can be used if the child is either unable to articulate their feelings and thoughts or are apprehensive to vocalise what is occurring in their life.

“A picture or creation can start a conversation more safely.”

As therapists understand the impact of children specific treatment plans, the use of animal therapy is being incorporated by some practitioners, with amazing results.

“Children respond very positively to animal use within therapy,” says Dr Phillip.

“We also know that pets and working with an animal has positive effects on the child’s development, self-esteem and self-confidence.”

Animals can be used as a support animal or for therapeutic purpose within the practitioner rooms.

“If the practitioner has a small cuddly animal used for therapy purposes, the child can develop a connection and disclose issues to the animal they may feel uncomfortable sharing with their therapist.

“An animal may also provide the child with the love and acceptance the child has not experienced in their life.
“The child can develop a feeling of safety and connection which can be utilised by the therapist to enable the child to feel more comfortable to talk and share their thoughts and feelings.”

Pet and animal therapy can be used to assist with numerous issues, including abuse, trauma, anxiety, grief and loss or matters dealing with physical illness of themselves or family member.

“They may suffer a variety of mental or emotional health issues.

“Self-harm, suicide prevention, social anxiety, behavioural issues are just some of the problems a practitioner can treat.”

Whilst specialist training can aid the practitioner to form a healthy connection and understanding of what the child is experiencing, most practitioners are qualified to work with children.

However, the evaluation, interviewing and treatment of a child differs from an adult.

“While many therapists work with children as part of their therapeutic practice, to specialise in children can involve specific training.”

For therapists wishing to incorporate animal or pet therapy, it is advisable they attend a training session on the dos and don’ts of animals in therapy.

“Like any modality, training for approved and accepted use is imperative.”

While using animals is not yet common practice, this type of therapy has been shown to have very positive results.

“We know animals can release endorphins that produce a calming effect on the individual, producing a relaxing feeling.

“There are a variety of substantial benefits using animals therapeutically for children.

“Pets and animals in therapy can help alleviate pain, both physical and emotional, reduce levels of stress and improve the child’s psychological state.”

Unfortunately though, it can be challenging for therapists to find the correct pet or animal for use within the therapy room.

“For those using a therapy pet, time is required, ongoing care and cost is needed, and this may not be possible for some families given location and limited finances.

“There are several animals for therapy areas that can benefit children.

“Most all children respond positively when interacting with an animal albeit cat, dog, horse, birds and so on.”

For therapists specialising in children, it’s worth a thought.

“Children need specialised care, communication and interaction, different to teens and different again to adults.

“Therapy needs to adjust as the child’s brain maturity changes.”


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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications ( and a children's author.