Intra-family violence can be one of the most challenging issues to treat in therapy. Much of the complexity results not only from the family’s likely mistrust of the system and the professionals that are a part of it — particularly in cases where Child Protective Services may have already intervened — but also, the prevalence of co-occurring disorders, such as addictions.
Often, these families will minimize the extent of the violence, possibly target one family member as the “problem” or offer the therapist platitudes — compliance in the service of resistance — that obfuscate the reality of the situation. While the therapist may suspect the violence is much more severe than is presented and gently confront the family, they may become defensive, increase resistance, or leave the therapy altogether. This dynamic combined with the family’s general mistrust of therapeutic settings places the therapist in a very difficult bind.
It’s in situations like this that the therapist must also be careful to avoid becoming overly immersed in the family system, and losing the very therapeutic objectivity that will help the family become aware of its own dysfunction. And what if the children are very young, and perhaps not even fully verbal or cognitively aware?
Recently, an article published in the Health and Social Care in the Community (Volume 15 Issue 3 Page 265 – May 2007) examined the effect of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) for children who have experienced intra-family violence. Using the Global Assessment of Functioning scale, the study found that “all children showed improvement in GAF scores, and there was a statistically significant correlation between the percentage improvement in the GAF scores and the number of sessions given.” (r = 0.73, P= 0.001).
The study included children referred to a psychotherapist specifically for EAP from school counselors, local therapists, pediatricians over an 18 month period. All sessions were voluntary, and any children who were averse to horses were excluded from the study.
During the sessions, the children were instructed to work with the horse on various tasks designed to increase their awareness of their own nonverbal behavior. As the children encountered their own emotional responses to the horse, they were encouraged to process these feelings in the moment.
Different from traditional therapy, working with a horse not only can facilitate rapport with the therapist, but also help the child who may be bound with the physiological remnants of physical abuse, in-home violence and neglect begin to become aware of his/her repressed feelings in a safe way.
Unlike being directly asked about a “taboo” subject, the horse simply responds to a child’s underlying feelings about his/her family violence, through the child’s physiological presentation. Often the child may not even be aware of these feelings himself/herself.
In this way EAP can be very relieving for the child, as well as a wonderful way to boost confidence in discussing the traumatic events that have occurred in his/her life. Additionally, EAP allows the child to have a private and meaningful relationship with something outside of the trauma of his/her family — which may be exceptionally rare in cases of intra-family violence.
For more information on this study, visit this link:
Claire Dorotik LMFT