Archive of ‘Play Therapy’ category

Animal-Assisted Interventions with Rio

For many of us, being greeted by your pet after a long day at work is a highlight of our day. Our stresses and worries can float away a little easier when there is an easily excitable animal waiting for us behind the front door. Our pets have the magical capability of helping us forget about all the bad stuff. It’s not surprising that many of us refer to our pets as our “babies”!

As an animal-assisted therapist, I am lucky enough to bring my “baby” with me to work at Austin Family Counseling. Rio, my border collie, is the friendly therapy dog you may have seen around the office. He is usually wearing a bandana and will greet you with a kiss or a full downward-dog bow. He spends his days with me, working with children, tweens, teens, and their parents. With lots of pets and belly rubs throughout the day, it’s safe to say he has a pretty sweet gig.

Rio and myself are certified in animal-assisted counseling and completed our trainings at the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy at Texas State University (Eat ‘em up, Cats!). Throughout our training, we experienced how powerful and therapeutic the human-animal bond can be.

In my previous blog post, I shared about animal-assisted counseling and how is can be therapeutically beneficial for clients. For this post, I want to share some animal-assisted interventions that I incorporate into sessions with my clients.

Highs and Lows with Rio:

To check in with my clients at the beginning of session, we start with our highs and lows. A “high” is the best thing that happened to you that day. A “low” is something we wish went a little differently. My client shares, I share, and we often speculate about what Rio might share if he could speak. Sometimes clients guess that Rio’s low is that it’s raining outside, that he’s feeling sleepy, or he only got to eat 2 treats instead of the client’s proposed 50. More often than not, my clients theorize that Rio’s high is spending time with them in session (and they’re not wrong!) 🙂

What Would Rio Do?:

I adapted this intervention from a fellow animal-assisted therapist, Wanda Montemayor. Wanda and her therapy dog Chango work with middle schoolers in Austin. Sometimes it is easier for kids to imagine what someone else might do in a situation instead of guessing what they themselves might do. You may have experienced this when your kiddo effortlessly recalls what their sibling did wrong, but find no fault in their own behavior! Not surprisingly, kids are very aware of what a dog might look like when they are scared, angry, or tired. Sometimes, it is more difficult to know our own physical reactions to stimuli that make us scared, angry, or tired. My clients know that if Rio were to ever huddle in a corner, wimper, or hide under his blanket during a thunderstorm, he would be feeling frightened. By guessing how Rio might react to relatable situations, clients are able to verbalize what their own emotional and physical reactions could be.

Emoji Balls:

Dr. Elizabeth Hartwig, the director of the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy, knew that Rio would be a good fit for this intervention because of his energy levels, intelligence, and eagerness to please. I have about a dozen stress balls with different emotions depicted on them. While Rio and I wait outside of the office, my client will hide the emoji balls throughout the room. When the balls are in place, my client invites us back in. Because Rio is very motivated by anything that can be thrown and retrieved, all my client has to do is ask, “Rio, where’s your ball?”. Rio will then tirelessly search the room for each emoji ball. As he finds each one, he will bring it back to us. My client and I each share a time in which we felt the emotion that is shown on the stress ball. These emotions range from scared, angry, calm, loved, sad, and more. We often like to guess a time when Rio felt that emotion, too. This is an active intervention for all participants, and definitely a favorite of my kids.

I hope this sneak peak into animal-assisted counseling gives you a little more insight into the therapeutic work canine counselors are capable of. If you have any questions for myself (or for Rio), don’t hesitate to reach out to [email protected] or (512) 893-7396.
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To learn more about Rio’s certification and training, check out Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy!

Morgan Rupe, LPC-Intern
Written by: Morgan Rupe, LPC-Intern under the supervision of Kirby Schroeder, LPS-S, LMFT-S
Follow Rio on Instagram at @animalassistedtherapist
Check out the work Morgan & Rio are doing at http://AnimalAssistedTherapist.com

Anxiety in Children: When Should You Seek Help? (Part 2 of 2)

For a reminder about anxiety in children and what is or is not normal, check out part 1 of 2 of this series.  Hopefully, this will give you as a parent, some better ideas on how your child is doing and how to differentiate normal & abnormal anxiety and stress management. If you’re still worried about your child and feel they are displaying more than what is typical for a kid their age, read on to determine when you should seek help.

Anxiety-Related Red Flags

As a parent, the main thing to keep in mind when trying to establish if your child needs extra help managing their anxiety is how it is affecting your child’s functioning. What your child is having anxiety about may be a developmentally appropriate subject, but the level of anxiety and suffering may be problematic. For example, your preteen might be worried about how she is going to do in her band recital. This is a normal response to a novel situation. However, if your child is not sleeping because of her nervousness, is overly emotional about the event, she is avoiding the event, or cannot be reassured, then it might be time to seek professional help for your child.

Other issues to look out for when identifying anxiety in your child are headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting and sleeplessness. These anxiety symptoms can last for months at a time. Symptoms can include clinginess, heightened emotionality, tantrums, difficulties concentrating or making decisions, as well as excessive anger or irritability. Children suffering from anxiety seem to be pessimistic, have catastrophic thoughts, and unreached perfectionistic ideals. Reassurances from caregivers is often not enough to calm down a child whose anxiety is out of their control.

As seen above, these symptoms are definitely interfering with a child’s day to day life. Another aspect of anxiety can be more difficult to initially notice. People pleasing and perfectionism are insidious ways that anxiety can manifest. These are generally seen as good qualities, but can be extremely distressing to your child if they never feel like they are good enough. If you notice your child “blowing up” over events that seem out of proportion, it could be a sign of perfectionism anxiety.

What to Expect from Therapy

Your child’s therapist will likely want to first meet with you to discuss all the concerns you have about your child. Once your child begins therapy, she will have a safe space in which she can discuss, through play or activities, the anxiety she is experiencing. Your child’s therapist will also equip you and your child with new skills to handle the anxiety when it feels too big. Sometimes in therapy the issue gets worse before it gets better, meaning that as your child’s therapist works through the anxiety with your child, your child might act out again. This is a normal process towards healing. Wait out the storm and trust the process. By taking these measure and getting your child to therapy at an early age, you could be saving them from years of detrimental anxiety.

Questions? Feel free to contact Michelle at [email protected]

By: Michelle Beyer, LPC – Intern Supervised by Karen Burke, LPC-S, RPT-S


Anxiety in Children: What is Normal? (Part 1 of 2)

It can be difficult to know as a parent when your child’s anxiety is reaching a point where they need help. What is considered normal nervousness and stress, and what are some red flags that could clue parents in that it’s time to get help? In this two-part article, I will be discussing what’s normal, reasonable anxiety, and what are some signs that it’s time to see a therapist.

Normal Anxiety

All children will experience some fear and anxiety throughout their life. In fact, it is developmentally appropriate that children experience nervousness when faced with something new or stressful. This fear is natural, because it signals the brain to proceed with caution when facing a new stressor. Sometimes even exciting things can first be seen as fearful to children.

Children experience these normal anxiety-provoking situations by backing off, seeking assurance from parents, or having shaky confidence for a while. When the child has mastered the situation, this confidence will grow again, and you will see your child overcome their initial fear. Parents can help their children to overcome these fears by accepting and listening to their child’s concerns, soothingly correcting any misinformation the child might believe, and gently encouraging the child to take one step at a time until this fear is conquered. Being gentle and loving during this time is the key to helping your child overcome lingering anxiety.

Typical Childhood Fears

Early Childhood – At age one, children are healthily attached to their caregivers, and might be fearful of separation. This gradually improves until around kindergarten age, where this separation anxiety gets better. Children ages 3-6 might have trouble distinguishing between what is real and imaginary, which is why children of this age can be scared of people in costumes, the dark, under the bed, etc. During this early childhood period, children might fear sleeping alone, but this again usually resolves by kindergarten age.

Later Childhood – In elementary school, children are exposed to new and more realistic fears. These can include storms, burglars, fires, and getting sick, to just name a few. As they grow, and gain real world experience, children begin to understand better that these are not likely scenarios. In middle school, children begin to get really anxious about fitting in with peers, and how to act in social situations. They also begin to have performance anxiety, as they begin to excel in their chosen academic or extracurricular activities. High school age children still worry about social status, but also about their identity, and acceptance in the group that they want to be in. At this age, teenagers also begin to worry about the outside world, morals, and their future.

By: Michelle Beyer, LPC – Intern Supervised by Karen Burke, LPC-S, RPT-S


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