The phrase "troubled teen" is somewhat ambiguous, and can mean different things to different people. But essentially, it refers to a teenager who struggles with mid-level to severe emotional and behavioral issues. The teen may experiment with drugs or alcohol or even become addicted. The issues can be caused by any number of things, including an unstable or unsafe home life, or spending time with the "wrong crowd". Regardless of the reasons, a teenager who's emotional or behaviorally unstable can be a danger to himself, his family and his friends. Over the years, psychologists and counselors have discovered many effective treatment programs for troubled teens. One that is coming to the forefront is Animal Assisted Therapy - or the use of professionally trained animals as part of the counseling process.
Studies have shown that spending time with a friendly animal, even a short time like 10 to 15 minutes, increases the amount of endorphins that are released into the body and decreases the levels of a chemical called cortisol - which is a hormone that controls stress and arousal. Because many troubled teens are in a near-constant state of emotional arousal and/or stress, animal assisted therapy can help them feel calmer.
Most domestic animals also shy away from aggressive behavior. Animal assisted therapy can help a troubled teen learn that quiet, gentle behavior gets better results than behavior that is loud and aggressive.
Some people hear "animal-assisted therapy" and think that it means kids are simply hanging out with pets, but true AAT is a formal, planned program in which the teen participates. Interactions with the animal(s) are controlled, and are done for specific reasons. Facilities that choose to implement animal-assisted therapy typically conduct extensive studies and develop strict rules and guidelines for their programs. Far from being haphazard, these programs are focused and intentional, and often produce marked positive results.
Counselors have seen teenagers, even teens in juvenile detention facilities, that are unresponsive to the counselor open up and actually "talk" to a therapy dog or horse. Some are so overwhelmed by a therapy dog's unconditional kindness that they break down and cry. This kind of emotional breakthrough is vital in the treatment of troubled or at-risk teenagers, and allows the teen to begin moving toward emotional and psychological healing.
In the late 1990's, a study was conducted at the Institute of Developmental Psychology in Leipzig, Germany. The ten participants all had varying types and degrees of behavioral and emotional issues including eating and anxiety disorders.
Each teen spent 30 minutes with a therapy animal. The sessions were videotaped and reviewed, with each participant being observed for changes in four different response indicators: gaze direction, posture, behavior towards the dog and behavior towards the therapist. All ten of the participants showed significant behavioral changes when interacting with the therapy dogs.
For teens who struggle with substance abuse or addiction, animal therapy can play a vital role in their recovery. Addiction takes a severe toll on a person's psyche, including their self-image and their ability to trust. Introducing a trained therapy animal into the counseling program can help a teen begin to work through these feelings as the animal's presence and acceptance of the teen aides in restoring a positive self-image and ability to trust others and themselves.