When he was only a few weeks old, Cameron was rushed to the emergency room with grand mal seizures and medical complications. By age 5, the hospital had become all too familiar to Cameron and his family, but their rush through the cold Emergency Room doors was no less frightening. Familiar rituals of needle sticks and questions abound, and when he was stabilized Cameron was offered a plethora of coloring books and videos. But what made this visit different was the third option given: therapy. Not the kind of therapy that comes with a lot of talking and analysis, but the kind that comes with floppy ears, soft fur, and a wagging tail. Cameron was lucky enough to be seen by a therapy dog that day, and according to his parents, this was the first “therapy” that truly calmed their distressed child.
When the suggestion of child counseling or therapy is made to a parent, thoughts often run to media depictions of a wise woman perched on the edge of a chair, observing the child as s/he draws pictures of his/her family and talks animatedly about troubles at home. This kind of therapy has its place, and for some children it is highly effective. But most therapists today engage in far more eclectic and active forms of therapy. At the Counselor Training Clinic at Becker College, for example, counselors are trained in traditional evidence-based practices grounded in psychological theory, but their work in-session is informed by the techniques developed and researched by practitioners from a variety of subspecialties within the counseling field.
For example, research demonstrates that play therapy can be a helpful tool for many children, including those with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorders. Due to the fact that play therapy involves social interactions and connections between therapist and child, there is a platform for creativity, imagination, fantasy, and exploration that a child on the spectrum might not usually have. Play therapy allows a child with developmental delays to build more sensorimotor skills as well. Sand tray or sand play therapy may be integrated into the play therapy and involves a more hands-on, story-telling approach. Sand tray therapy can allow children to express themselves nonverbally, again aiding children who may be on the autism spectrum.
Another “nontraditional” therapy that has found a place in many child-oriented practices is mindful meditation and yoga. Yoga, or movement therapy, may be useful for the child with ADHD or social thinking/social emotional learning skill deficits. Yoga has been proven to improve impulse control, as well as attention control and emotion regulation. It is believed to help in these areas because of the focus on concentration, body awareness, and stress reduction
New research is currently being conducted in order to prove its effectiveness and, ultimately, have yoga be integrated into more schools. Children can be referred to general yoga classes or to a yoga therapy group specifically targeted to young people dealing with issues of self-esteem or anxiety.
For children with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder, music therapy has been proven to assist children with increased information retention, auditory perception, and overall language skills. Because there is a sequence of activities that occurs within a music session, children are able to work on gestures, verbalization, communicative functions, and expression in a natural setting. In addition, music therapy may result in increased short-term memory, decreased distractibility, and enhanced information processing for the child.
Like music, art is a natural expression of the human experience, and one that child therapists can utilize to assist children who may not be able to express their thoughts and feelings in words. Though drawings are often used in conjunction with more traditional “talk therapies,” an art therapist can explore multiple art modalities to provide a child with the chance to explore less intimidating means of communication. Art therapy allows children to use visual work to help unconscious or ill-formed ideas find expression. Art therapy may be used in individual therapy or within a group; both have been researched and proven to be effective.
Childhood is a time of significant change, and even if our world were not changing at a lightning pace, there would be children who struggle to keep up. But in modern times with the pace of life, the complexity of families, and the daily threats in our social world, children are more vulnerable than ever. When parents are asked to consider a counselor or a therapist for their child, they should not view this as a criticism or a threat to their privacy, but as an opportunity to join with a professional partner who can help their child find a way to voice concerns and feelings, to process those feelings, and navigate the social world with success.
Kaitlyn Hall is graduate student clinician in the Mental Health Counseling program at Becker College with specialized interest and training in the area of art therapy. She provides counseling services to adults, children, couples and families thought the Counselor Training Clinic (CTC) at Becker College in Leicester. Visit mhcclinic.becker.edu for more information about available, low-cost, counseling services at the CTC with Kaitlyn or other qualified professionals.