When it comes to helping children deal with loss, animal therapy for kids can play a role, says behavior specialist Anna Schankowski, LMSW.
A social worker for Lincoln Park Public Schools, Schankowski opened the Healing Hearts Therapeutic Farm in Carlton, Michigan in spring 2019, complete with horses, chickens, goats and dogs.
“We’re targeting families and kids who have suffered loss or grief and experienced trauma,” Schankowski says. “We’ll help them feel and trust and move forward.”
Here, Schankowski, who is a certified trauma trainer and licensed animal-assisted intervention therapist, discusses how animals can assist in recovery – and the good news about overcoming loss.
How do animals help children/adolescents deal with loss?
“The animal-human bond can be one of the most healing experiences. When clinical office therapy is combined with animal-assisted interventions, treatment goals can expand to include connections that office therapy alone cannot achieve.
“Animals have an awareness of emotions without needing to actually ‘talk’ about it, allowing those who are feeling unsafe in their current situations to spend healing time connecting emotionally to the animals with no pressure to verbalize anything at all.
“Some of the therapeutic benefits of working with a pet partner are the bonds that form, the trust that is built and having unconditional love that will be waiting.
“Loss is an experience felt in the mind and body, affecting each individual person differently. Therapeutic approaches that meet the person where they are in their hurt is very important. It’s also the first step before progressive healing can begin.”
Are there any warning signs that children are not coping with loss well and that parents need to step in with something like animal therapy for kids?
“Warning signs that your child is not coping well with loss differ with age. The younger the child, the more difficult it may be to notice the signs of grief. Sometimes this is because the adults are dealing with stressors of their own and may unknowingly minimize or overlook their child’s behaviors. Behavior is communication.
“Behaviors could include crying a lot, extra sensitivity to otherwise normal situations, a ‘roller coaster’ of emotional responses, a loss of interest in things they used to like to do, reported concern(s) from school about lack of participation or productivity, and/or a general depressive mood that goes past eight to 12 weeks.
“The older kids, preteens or teens, will exhibit many of these behaviors – such as a change in sleep patterns (lack of sleep or too much sleep), withdrawal, possible substance abuse for self-medicating, risky or delinquent behaviors and/or changes in social circles. It would be appropriate for a parent or guardian to seek outside therapeutic support for their child if these behaviors are observed.”
Should parents be hopeful about their child’s resilience in overcoming loss?
“Parents should absolutely be hopeful about their child’s resilience in healing from loss. Science tells us a lot about the brain and how trauma loss, and grief affect the development of neural-pathways.
“Traumatic experience can damage the connections necessary in the brain that create the ability to appropriately respond to these difficult life situations.
“It should be noted that traumatic experiences or loss and grief are not just big tragedies, but may be other types of occurrences such as moving to a new home, leaving a school, losing a pet, divorce, loss of friendship, a change of teachers or child awareness of family struggles (food, shelter, bills, money, etc.).
“When kids, and adults for that matter, experience positive responses to basic needs, such as strong relationships and trust, new neural-pathways can be formed and replacement memories can be built, allowing for an increased ability to deal with difficult situations.
“Animal assisted therapy complements clinical therapy in other ways as well. The combined therapy strategies will provide the child with the skill to first regulate his or her own body, allowing the brain to be open to forming new replacement neural-pathways.
“The human-animal bond also assists by providing a reciprocal relationship that is beneficial to calming the part of the brain that keeps us in a nervous or agitated state. Resiliency is the golden ticket!”
Does helping kids deal with loss in a healthy way at a young age set the stage for them to cope with loss throughout their lives?
“Helping kids deal with loss in a healthy way and at a young age will most definitely provide a foundation of skills for them to cope with loss throughout their lives.
“Providing kids the time and space needed to process loss and grief, along with support when they ask for it, will provide them with new experiences and memories to utilize and tap into when those difficult times arise throughout life.
“Loss and grief is a part of our world, and there is usually no warning when it occurs. Dealing with loss and grief is something that is learned through practice during the experience itself. Support and guidance provided for kids during those times will give them tools necessary for the future.”