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New Approaches to Teen Therapy Bring Results


When help is needed for a troubled teen and things feel like they are falling apart at home, psychotherapeutic interventions provide families with a growing array of options.

There was a time when parents turned to their own elders, their religious community, and extended family for assistance, but today’s parents are not as closely tied to support systems, and the help they seek is often within the professional community.

Only about half of American children and teenagers with certain mental disorders receive professional services and only about a third of youth with an anxiety disorder receive treatment, according to the NHANES survey (2001-04) published in Pediatrics and funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).*

Perhaps one reason for such a lack of services is the stigma that is associated with mental illness. Often insurance companies and managed care organizations refer to mental illness as behavioral healthcare to demystify and deconstruct the label of mental illness. Today, children who are diagnosed with clinical terminology are referred to as troubled teens so as to provide awareness that their diagnosis is not necessarily permanent.

Where Can a Parent Turn to for Help?

In the past, teens diagnosed with mental disorders (troubled teens) had limited treatment options, other than talk therapy with a licensed professional. During the last ten years, therapy approaches have changed significantly to meet the needs of troubled teens, according to Debora Waring, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist with Ironwood School and RTC.

Mental health professionals can suggest placing a teen in a structured residential program, after less restrictive environments have failed (day treatment, intensive outpatient). Residential treatment facilities and therapeutic boarding schools offer 24/7 structure and supervision and the opportunity for a teen to gain knowledge about life skills and build more pro-social behaviors in a supportive therapeutic environment.

Waring cites an example of how new therapy approaches and therapeutic interventions helped a troubled teen named Stephen.

Stephen, 15, began skipping school and receiving declining grades. He started hanging out with new friends and withdrawing from the family. He distanced himself from his siblings and father, and attempts by his mother to communicate with him were brushed off. Stephen no longer demonstrated any caring or loving feelings for his family. At one point, he was questioned by a police officer about a recent break-in in a nearby neighborhood. Stephen’s disturbing behavior created a breach in the family’s otherwise close knit family.

Stephen’s parents were in crisis. They felt alone and frustrated. They didn’t know where to turn—and the justice system was at the doorstep. This family was on the edge of an emotional cliff. Is therapy the answer? Is the juvenile justice system where Stephen is headed? What should a parent do?

Today, a variety of therapeutic options are available to troubled teens.

A wilderness therapeutic program is especially effective as it offers an alternative setting to the traditional “talk therapy” of the past, where teens met with therapists in their offices, causing the teen to feel uncomfortable and defiant. Wilderness therapy offers the teen a complete change in environment away from negative influences and daily stressors, enabling the teen to become introspective and appreciate nature.

“Therapists now work with teens in non-threatening outdoor woodland settings where therapy can take place while the teen is hiking in the woods, seated on a rock overlooking a pond, riding a horse on a forest trail, roasting marshmallows around a campfire, and walking with the teen’s favorite dog,” said Waring.
Alternative therapy programs work

“The use of horses and dogs is growing and gaining popularity with the rise of new therapeutic models in animal therapy, and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Canine Therapy have been documented as beneficial in helping troubled teens turn their lives around,” said Waring.

Animal-assisted therapy has been used successfully with teens since the 1960s. Those who are familiar with equine-assisted therapy and canine therapy programs recognize and understand the power of horses and dogs to influence young people in incredibly powerful ways. As the troubled teen learns to communicate with an animal, he or she often finds a correlation between the way parents try to communicate and motivate an obstinate teen. Often teens with trust issues develop close bonds with an animal after taking responsibility for its care and well-being. Animal therapy has been proven to increase communication skills, self-discipline and positive behaviors. Equine and canine therapy programs are also effective in improving a teen’s self- esteem, as horses, dogs and other animals give the teen unconditional love and acceptance.

Customizing therapy to meet the needs of the teen creates successful outcomes

Residential treatment centers and therapeutic boarding schools provide students with the tools to discover their self-worth, healthy values and positive behaviors, through customized treatment programs designed to meet the needs of each individual teen.

“When researching residential treatment programs for a troubled teen, parents should select one that focuses on providing intensive therapy including Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), cognitive, individual, family and animal-assisted therapy,” said Waring. “The length of the treatment program will also vary, some students may graduate in six months and other teens may take nine months or longer to complete treatment. Each student and their family should progress at their own rate as they learn and develop skills.”

Stephen’s parents decided to place him at Ironwood School and RTC, a facility that specializes in transforming students who have lost a sense of their values, who lack positive direction and who suffer from poor self-esteem.

“When teens such as Stephen arrive at a residential treatment facility, the therapists’ primary job is to create a safe and structured environment where Stephen can begin to acknowledge and understand his behaviors, diffuse his anger, begin to repair his relationship with his family, and move toward a healthier lifestyle,” said Waring. “This growth occurs within a clear framework of therapies and behavioral interventions that reflect the changing face of therapy.”

As a resident teen, Stephen was able to participate in solution-focused interventions, DBT, which leads to better coping strategies and interpersonal skills development, as well as addictions groups that utilize motivational therapy techniques and relapse prevention models. He also took part in comprehensive individual therapeutic sessions, where great emphasis is placed on human potential and the importance of healthy relationships.
Stephen also benefited from equine-assisted psychotherapy and dog therapy programs that lead teens on an introspective journey about relationships, responsibility, values and behavior. While developing horsemanship and riding skills, Stephen began to interact with animals in new and enlightening ways enabling him to see his family members in a new light and develop skills to better assist him in communication, handling frustration and anger, and expressing and receiving love.

“Caring for horses and dogs plays a huge part in a teen’s willingness and ability to engage quicker and deeper into underlying issues that have prevented them from being more successful in the past,” said Waring.

“Over the course of his stay at Ironwood, Stephen developed a connection with several dogs and horses,” Waring said. “At first Stephen had trust issues, but after canine and equine-assisted therapy, he began to feel safe with the animals and slowly began to take steps toward creating genuine caring relationships and reuniting with his family. Stephen’s parents reported that they were pleased with the therapeutic intervention they chose.”

About Ironwood Therapeutic Boarding School and Residential Treatment Center - Ironwood is a one-of-a-kind combination of a traditional boarding school and licensed therapeutic treatment program that specializes in working with struggling, underachieving teens utilizing an extensive and customized therapeutic program and academic curriculum.

*In the NHANES study, researchers tracked six mental disorders—generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder.


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