Words are so powerful! Studies have been done showing that plants thrive and grow with loving words and wilt and wither with hateful words (IKEA study 2018). I believe that words carry an energy with them, based on what I know from the Bible and from the vibrational frequency field of study. I have recently been convicted of what language I am using in regards to my horse’s “personalities” and who I find it easier to connect with than others. Many parents find themselves in the same situation where one child is easier to parent than another… Not favorites per se, but different connections. That is very normal especially for parents with children who have mental health challenges and attachment disorders, when the child isn’t able to give a desired response to your nurture or discipline due to brain and body challenges changed from trauma. The challenge that remains is keeping yourself in check to not make this child the “other”, “black sheep”, or “difficult” child. This is especially important with children who were adopted or were in foster care as this can be an issue already. If we get into the habit of talking about the child’s issues, like we have to do at times to professionals, the child can sense our difficulty as a character flaw in them and bring about shame. Shame does not create behavioral change and it could increase the undesired behaviors because of them feeling our challenge with them!
This is not something I am immune to in my parenting or with the horses. I have been more mindful about how I speak about my herd. I often tell clients that we don’t do anything here in therapy with the horses that doesn't apply to human relationships. This work is principle based and the principles transfer! The principle then of me being mindful of my words about the horse (or child) that challenges me most, is then something I need to apply. There is one of my horses that struggles with connection because of their history and reacts by nipping me when they want to complain about anything. If I don’t stop my thoughts I can end up thinking and talking to others about how they are “naughty” or any number of complaints of my own! The more I let my thoughts go, the more negative I get, and the more I expect that horse to nip me.. and guess what? They do end up nipping me more! This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The issue we see in our child, think about, talk about, and expect to see, usually creates a dynamic where the child (or horse) lives up to those expectations. Not something we want to do! I also want to stop here so we can halt the mom-guilt train as well. It is really hard to parent these kids who don’t receive our connection the way we want! The big behaviors are hard and we often don’t have anyone to talk to about it. I am hoping to start a mom’s group this fall to help combat this issue. (Let me know if you’re interested!) Self compassion is key to parenting with regulation and the ability for self-growth (see the awesome podcast about this by Robyn Gobbel https://robyngobbel.com/selfcompassion/).
So what can we do prevent the self-fulfilling prophecy effect with our children (and horses)? Working on our thoughts does help. Stopping ourselves when we think about what challenges us in our child in a non-constructive manner. However the goal is to get our whole body and brain on board with the shift! Creating more opportunities for connection with this child and moments of joy will help give more positives to focus on. If you can also raise empathy for your child by thinking of some of the reasons why they may behave in those ways, perhaps resistance kept them safe in a time prior to your care. Also reframing some of the gifts of certain personality traits like stubbornness and anger as them being able to stand up for what they believe and think is fair, something more adults should do!
There are times when it is necessary to talk about the child's behaviors to a parent who wasn’t there or professional as a part of the natural consequences of breaking a rule. A good way to prevent the shame from being the only thing they take away from the conversation, is to make sure you are saying more positive than negative. If you say one negative thing, say two specific positive things and end on the positive as well. For example when talking to dad later in the day when the child is present, “Barbie had a rough day at school where she walked out of math class and swore at the teacher. Barbie did well calming down within a few minutes and did great making it up to her teacher by helping her staple papers later. She is a helpful girl.” Specific and factual!
I plan to spend intentional time with my horse this week and shoo away any thoughts that keep them in the role of the “naughty” horse and not the strong, curious, and determined horse they are! I also plan to intentionally shift how I talk about them to others and do re-dos when I mess up.
Parenting “kids from hard places” is hard! Nothing that worked for you as a kid is working for the kids whom you’ve brought into your home and they are not responding like your biological kids to your parenting methods. I created a little video below to share about some of the more traditional parenting tools we come into parenting with that may “work” on kids who have not experienced trauma, but are just not cutting it with your sweet, hurt child. Some of the old tools like yelling, time outs, taking away things, reward charts, you name it.. just don’t work and it’s frustrating. I would note that any technique that desires compliance and obedience due to fear over whole brain connection won’t “work” in the long run but that’s another blog post.. :)
Our kid’s brain’s have such a tiny window of tolerance, or zone of what feels safe to them, that many of the old tools are too much or too subtle to make any changes with a child impacted by an attachment or trauma wound. Either the tiniest of remarks sends them into a four-hour explosion or they could care less if you threw away everything in their room including their bed. The feeling of loosing the control that kept them safe or the lack of care for your expectations due to not having a stable attachment in the past, makes sense given their history. However, it is not working in the home you are trying to build on connection! We need new tools that create connection and felt-safety to stay in their window of tolerance.
Yes, a big part of our child’s healing is their individual therapy work that we do building their window of tolerance, responding to relational triggers in the moment with their horse partner, learning to manage energy, and form healthy attachments is essential to helping your goal of having a connected home (See my page on Individual therapy). If we are being honest though, it is very hard even when you know all the connected parenting tools you learn from TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) and trauma experts- because we get triggered too! When it comes down to it, we know a big part of their healing comes from us. We have to be the co-regulators for them to learn the regulation skills they missed in infancy and the secure attachment they can cling to. If we have our own struggles with calming ourselves and attachment triggers (we all do including me!) then how can we give them what we don’t have?
By having your own therapy sessions, you can feel the internal regulation and mindfulness that the horses naturally help us with. We can also practice learning to increase and lower our energy to gain connection and cooperation. Horses have very similar brains to kids who’ve experienced trauma and we can gain muscle memory for gradually increasing the energy of our request until we get connected cooperation. Trust me, we can experience very similar sensations when our horse isn’t cooperating as we do with our kids! The TBRI levels of response is this very thing of incrementally increasing our request and not using more pressure than needed. It is hard to master! It’s far too easy to slip out of the connected parenting/TBRI framework into yelling etc. Let’s grow our connection muscles- you, me, and the horses! See my contact page to reach out today. For parents with kids who are in the CCS and CLTS programs this very well could be covered under your child’s goals and paid for if your worker adds this to their plan. As well as some Forward Health clients if there is a family goal.
In the video I explain all this and more. Give it a watch and let me know if you have any questions at all!
I have also included a video of my and my horse Jack as I ask him to follow me. I start with intention, then a look, a smooch, waving my arms, and when I get too frustrated (a deep breath) and a rope help me with my energy. Practices like this help me to increase my window of tolerance and when my child is “not listening” I have more emotional space to gradually increase my pressure with her.
Weighted items are wonderful sensory tools that can be very effective for calming. The pressure is calming and can work for children who are dysregulated because it is passive sensory input which is what the brain needs when its in survival mode. It is also great because it does not involve touching which can trigger some children further. Some anxious children love them for just watching TV or doing homework as well. I personally love weighted blankets and my weighted shoulder wrap! They can be pretty pricey so I decided to make my own weighted stuffed animals for the office. The large horses are the perfect lap size. Most occupational therapists recommend 10% of the child’s body weight.
You will need:
Sometimes I forget how universal trauma is to all living beings. Even horses can have trauma. One of them being our big guy, Jack. The way that I have seen trauma play out in him is also a reminder that trauma lives in the body.
Trauma is any experience where the sensory information registered by the brain is arrhythmic. Chaotic, jarring, shocking, violent, harsh… these are the opposite of predictable, patterned, repetitive which Dr. Bruce Perry states are essential to trauma healing.
The thing is the brain is actually connected to our whole body with neurons in our stomach and heart and all through our body connected to our vagus nerve. One book that shows how much trauma impacts all of our self is “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk. It shows how the body can hold memories of trauma which impact so much of our daily lives.
This is how he describes trauma in the book:
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
Trauma lodges within our body and can get trapped causing all kinds of issues. Van Der Kolk also states:
“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.”
You may have guessed it… Equine-assisted therapy is body-based! The experiential nature of working with the horses and the attuned feedback they give us about our body and emotions helps us to make great strides in healing trauma.
In 2018 Jack suffered a bought of Lyme’s Disease. Something that is very common in our area. He was so sore and could barely walk most days. After lots of treatment and loving he is back to mostly normal. However our farrier pointed out last year that Jack’s hoof shows the record of this trauma. That line in the middle shows the arrhythmic growth of his hoof during that time of stress. His body was keeping the score!
How can this concept show up with our kiddos?
The need for therapy the address the body and not just talking about trauma is explained deeply in The Body Keeps the Score. Doing this helps our child’s emotional and behavioral health for sure.
There are many other ways the body shows up as a result of trauma. Apart from many physical symptoms such as tummy issues that show up with stress in the moment, other autoimmune diseases are more prevalent among children and adults who’ve experienced trauma. (See the ACE study for more information)
There are also occurrences of heightened stress around trauma anniversaries. Taking note of the time of year your child was removed, experienced loss, or other marked incidents can help to explain an increase in behaviors around that time. Psychology Today* cites a study from research at Stockholm University who studied parents who lost a child and they had an increased risk of dying of a cardiovascular event during the anniversary week of that death. I know personally as foster parents we have noticed increased stress during the time week of removal in later years.
Keeping the brain, body, emotional connection in mind can help us be more understanding and compassionate to ourselves and our kids!
ACE Adverse Childhood Experiences Study: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html
Things have amped up at my house as I’m sure it has in many houses as stress levels increase for parents with pandemic and political burnout hitting us pretty hard. Our three year old has increased some behaviors this week and I decided to pull from my tool belt TBRI nurture groups. A nurture group is a time set aside to proactively get ahead of problems in the home and do it with fun and connection. It borrows from Theraplay activities and I have adapted it some at my house. Empowered to Connect has a great post about how they do nurture groups as well.
It is broken down into a few sections and here is a sample outline of what I do in my home and in sessions with families.
If this is something you need help in trying or think your child is just too oppositional to do on your own, I would love to help you all in a family session! You also wouldn’t believe how cool it is to include your horse partner in your nurture group as well. Contact me to schedule a session.
*We heard the name Mr. Piddlesworth from a dog’s name on a Dr. Poll episode on Disney Plus and it makes me laugh even now thinking of that silly name. ☺
Happy New Year! This title may be a little off since I am not one to set resolutions per say... but I had a new idea about incorporating habits in your life and making them stick. One of my best discoveries of 2020 was the Libby app that connects your library card to tons of free library content including audio books. A friend recommended The Little Book of Hygge. My mom has been into all things Northern Europe and hygge for a while but my official introduction to this was this book. For those who don't know, per the Cambridge Dictionary, hygge is "a Danish word for a quality of cosiness (=feeling warm, comfortable, and safe) that comes from doing simple things such as lighting candles, baking, or spending time at home with your family." The Danes consistently win the country that tops happiness per capita in the world. The author of the book is a leader from the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark and attributes the cultural inclusion of hygge in part for the wide spread happiness; In addition to all its population not having to suffer extreme unhappiness due to not having their basic needs met.
How does hygge help with creating healthy habits? I got to thinking about the time I needed to study for my exam to be licensed as a Clinical Social Worker. I am a procrastinator and need to work to make myself do anything that I don't enjoy, unlike my husband who has the self-control to do all kinds of healthy things. Every time I studied for that test I lit a candle I had just gotten as a gift and made myself some tea. That candle has been burnt out for some time, but that scent still reminds me of studying. I made the task special by including my senses and making it a cozy experience. Including other elements of hygge like social connection, nature, a special indulgence, mindfulness of the moment, and setting a cozy mood would be great for any number of habits. For example, including friends on an exercising goal for connection and making fun memories. If reading more books is your resolution, making a cozy corner and a buying a special reading tea would be very hygge. If the Danes are on to something this practice could also boost your happiness!
For years praying has been something I've struggled to make a habit in the way I would like. This weekend I decided to try and make prayer more hygge. I took some candles and went into our woods and sat quietly to pray and meditate. I am a person who needs lots of silence in my life but I rarely get it, especially since becoming a mom this year. This fifteen to twenty minutes of nature and quiet did me a lot of good. Though I may not do this every weekend I like the idea of making my prayer more mindful, sensory, and special. Why not make the things you struggle to do more enjoyable?
Do you have any habits you want to cultivate this new year?
I sent out an email to a provider recently describing how the process of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy can look with kids and teens to treat trauma and attachment. I thought it would make a good mini-blog post for others interested!
In sessions the clients choose a horse to work with to form a real relationship with. We have three very different personalities in the herd to choose from and we will be adding a new friend next year as well! While the client is forming a relationship with their horse partner, they come up against patterns. These patterns are difficulties that they have in human relationships too, such as control, dysregulation, communication, and everything else you can imagine. The client is able to work on changing those patterns in the moment with a very attuned and sensitive being that understands our emotional energy. See more about “Why horses?” in the FAQ.
That can look many different ways depending on the child, such as lacking confidence in making requests of another and thus using control or shutting down. We would then work on ways of staying regulated when triggered and being mindful of connection with the horse. Central to the relationship building are the attachment skills of giving care, receiving care, being an autonomous self, and negotiating needs from Jude Cassidy in the article, “Truth, lies, and intimacy: An attachment perspective.” How a child deals with those skills in human relationships will show up in sessions with the horse. Even more basic is that the horses allow the opportunity to practice coping with stress and dysregulation in the moment since they will not engage unless the client is at a stable energy. Everything in EAP is very experiential and thus building brain connections that can be used in their human relationships. There is also the possibility of mounted work to build brain connections for regulation using the horse's bilateral movements and brain exercises. Mounted work can also be integrated when the client has built a connect relationship and is ready to process trauma.
I hope this gives more of an explanation as to how horses can help children and teens with attachment and trauma therapy. If you think your child would be a good fit for this kind of healing, please give me a call to chat about it! 715-200-3838
It is important for me to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples' Day. Not only because of it’s social justice relevance or value to the foster and adoption community whom I serve, since Native children are the most over represented in foster care (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System, 2013), though these are vital issues. This is personally important as well, my mother is a Potawatomi Native American tribal member and I am a descendant. This day is important to be because of the deep connection I have always felt to these roots.
The littlest guy in the photo above was my grandpa. So cute...
Many Native American values are a part of who I am. One of them is summed in this quote attributed to Black Elk. We as people and living things on this planet are not independent of one another. We have a responsibility to live harmoniously because we are all connected.
This quote also brings to mind being interconnected. Interconnectedness is something I have been pondering since it was revealed as the focus for the Natural Lifemanship conference that will be next week. (Super excited for it by the way!) Being in a global health crisis also makes one consider the way we are all connected as well. There is so much research, particularly from Dr. Siegal, about how humans impact one another. This is called Interpersonal Neurobiology. Siegal states that humans are a product of the interactions we have with one another. Our brains and bodies are connected to the inner experiences of others as they connect with us. His “Triangle of Well-being" concept states that the mind, brain/body neural system, and relationships are all three working and changing as it shapes who we are. This starts in-utero and all our lives. Babies develop through the attachment relationship and their mind, brains, and bodies are organized (or disorganized).
Even cooler for human interconnectedness is the research on epigenetics that has shown us that our bodies and brains that are developing by these experiences code our DNA and is passed on to our children. Unfortunately, trauma that changes the brain and body of the individual can be passed through our DNA to the next generations and predispose them to stress-related difficulties.
This brings me back to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This day marks a shift to acknowledge the injustices done to Native people. Injustices that caused trauma and has impacted current barriers in communities and likely epigenetics. As a person who was shaped by my Native family relationships, I believe that resilience, love of nature, and the visceral feeling of awe when I hear drumming also impacts me. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, seek out Native voices to understand the history and impacts of today, but also the wisdom and understanding of a people that that knew interconnectedness even before neurobiology explained it.
Natural Lifemanship Conference:
Indigenous Peoples' Day:
Thanks for stopping by! I hope to shed some light on how therapy with horses can be a really helpful way to treat trauma for kids. It isn't just "playing with horses" or a healing hobby for your child. It is real therapy and really effective! If you took a look at my blog post from last week you got a glimpse of how equine-assisted psychotherapy helped me grow personally. This blog post is for those wondering how this process can help your child who has gone through trauma.
Since my specialty is foster care and adoption, though I do work with other trauma as well, you might be a mama reading this who has a child in their home that you aren't sure if their struggles are related to adoption or "just being a kid." All children who have joined a family though adoption have been traumatized. Even if they were placed in your arms at the hospital. There is trauma that occurs in utero and at birth. Not only possible exposure to substances, but even those moms who have chosen adoption from the start have to undergo the stress of that decision which the baby takes in as well. Then factor in losing the only connection you have had for nine months with no way to process it verbally. Memories we have as a baby stay with us in our bodies. Pre-verbal trauma can often be harder to deal with because it had set up the way your brain and body work from there out with no way to explain it to yourself when you are triggered. On top of that early trauma, many of our children also come home to us with abuse and neglect. All trauma can deeply impact a child’s brain, body, behaviors, biology, and beliefs about themselves and the world.*
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? A child who can go from happy to throwing chairs without any notice. A teen who can’t seem to make or keep friends. A child who seems to reject your love and makes it hard for you to like them most days. These are all impacts of trauma!
The Early Child Mental Health Consultation has laid out the trauma signs and symptoms for infants and young children really well in this article. Also see the image below for other signs that your child or teen is struggle with their trauma history.
Having a child in your home with any of these symptoms is extremely challenging. A parent needs all the help they can get! Equine-assisted psychotherapy may be just the thing your child needs to work through their history and replace trauma behaviors with connection. It is experiential so it will get to the body-stored trauma. Connecting with a horse can often be easier for a child with relationship trauma as well so there is often more engagement. Not to mention the horse can walk away when our kiddos are not regulated leaving them to realize how their behavior impacts others.
What would the benefits of treatment with horses look like for child and teen with trauma?
If you have any questions about your child and how Wholehearted Herd Counseling can help give me a call! 715-200-3838
Wholehearted Herd Counseling, LLC provides trauma therapy for children and teens and family therapy focused on attachment for adoptive and foster families with the help of horses. Wholehearted Herd Counseling, LLC is an equine-assisted therapy service in the central Wisconsin, Wausau, and Antigo areas.
Image “Impact of Childhood Trauma”: https://www.theedadvocate.org/the-impact-of-childhood-trauma/
I thought I would share a little bit about the model of equine-assisted therapy I choose to use in my practice and my own experience of it working for me. It is called Trauma-Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy from the Natural Lifemanship Institute. It’s hands on, attachment-based, and powerful!
I discovered Natural Lifemanship (NL) through a search of a different horse therapy models. The ones I knew about were based on metaphor work and little contact with the horses. I myself struggle with understanding abstract things sometimes and I know kids need more playing and doing than talking... so, I was looking for something different. I was already doing in-home family therapy and NL seemed to be the TBRI (Trust-Based relational Intervention) of horse therapies. It is about relationships, attachment, and trauma where you actually get to be with the horses. I jumped right in and signed up for a training! I wanted to see if this was something I could see myself doing and if one day I could meld my passions of therapy and horses as my own business.
First off, the training host site at Soulful Prairies in Woodstock IL was an absolute dream (see the included pictures). I was drooling and daring to let myself dream of my own business plans. This made me even more excited to see what this work was about and how it would fit in my dreams.
As I sat in sessions learning at the training, I was slightly skeptical of how all this would come together working with the horses. The model is building real relationships with horses and thus rewiring the brain impacted by trauma and attachment wounds. It sounded too fun to get at the deep emotional stuff a client has. It was then our turn in the training to get a taste of the work and do it with the horses. I stepped into the round pen very nervous but I was thrilled that the horse I picked connected with me and even followed me right away! After the first day I went back to my hotel and told my husband that I was really good at this! (I did say that much to my embarrassment now). Little did I know the next day I would learn just how this model get at your own “stuff.” I walked into the round pen the next day and nothing was working. Every attempt to get the horse to come to me was ignored or resisted. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I thought that I was not in fact cut out for this. The trainer caught scent of my near-tears, as any therapist has a sixth sense for (see the top photo for proof). I was trying to hide my emotional "issue" and much to my annoyance she asked me what was going on in my relationship with the horse. I said “he isn’t letting me be good at this!” Then it dawned on me that I wasn’t in the round pen working on the relationship with the horse as I was supposed to, I was trying to be perfect so I could prove to myself I was good enough to do this as my career. Well then the tears came more... the trainers were amazing and helped me though this. When I turned around after wiping my tears to try again to actually connect with the horse... he was already there!
I went to the training wondering if I would be “good” enough to do this. Should I start this business? Am I good enough for this dream? Perfectionism and the quest of being “good enough” has been a life long struggle for me and the horses brought that out! It was the exact thing I needed to deal with in order to feel confident that no matter what difficulty comes my way I can rest in the fact that this isn’t about me being “good enough.” Relationships are work and hard. If I show up, be myself, do the work I am good enough. I also had the realization that whatever I am lacking Jesus promises to be there with me to use my weaknesses to make things perfect. I can’t be perfect on my own.
Hopefully you can understand a little glimpse of how this kind of therapy can work. Maybe you just needed to hear that you are good enough too. This parenting journey of foster care and adoption is no easy task. There is surely no perfect way to do it besides showing up, being yourself, and doing the work. If you don’t know where to start, the horses and I are waiting to help!
Call or email me to set up an appointment! 715-200-3838 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Wholehearted Herd Counseling, LLC provides trauma therapy for children and teens and family therapy focused on attachment for adoptive and foster families with the help of horses. Wholehearted Herd Counseling, LLC is an equine-assisted therapy service in the central Wisconsin, Wausau, and Antigo areas.