When we think of therapy, we tend to envision something traditional; a study-like room with deep chairs or a sofa where a person sits having a one-on-one discussion with a therapist holding a yellow notepad. While that traditional form of talk therapy is still an option, today there are so many more possibilities for complementary therapies compared to a decade or two ago.
We’ve all heard about alternative therapeutic methods that others have tried and weren’t quite sure what to think about them. It can be difficult to sift through the latest techniques and know what information has any proven validity to it and what simply does not (especially with the Internet at our fingertips). It’s important to keep in mind that some people make a living by selling an idea. If it sounds too good to be true, makes a lot of lofty promises without any substance behind its claims, or makes a request for payment before fully explaining how the intervention works, it’s good to check with other sources before getting your child involved in a complementary therapy.
Types of Therapeutic Interventions
While we aren’t able to provide you with a comprehensive list of all of the therapeutic interventions that are available in this tip sheet (there are simply too many!), the following list provides you with some options for your consideration.
Sensory Integration Therapy: Sensory Integration Therapy is a type of occupational therapy that focuses on the way the brain processes sensation, interprets it, and sends messages to various parts of the body on how to respond. When there’s a snag in this process, a therapist can work with you and the child to develop a sensory integration plan (sometimes referred to as a “sensory diet”). As a parent, you may have spotted an odd reaction or physical sensitivity (or insensitivity) here or there, without an explanation. The sensory integration plan guides parents and teachers on how to respond or provide soothing activities. Sensory toys and tools are often used to provide tactile feedback to the brain (think texture, vibration, sticky, squishy, pressure, etc.).
Music Therapy: Music therapy can be in the form of listening to, moving to, creating, playing, or singing music. It’s something parents can encourage at home, and you can also enlist the services of a certified music therapist for a more structured and individualized plan of therapy. Music can elevate a child’s mood, promote a sense of inner strength and spirituality, reduce stress and depression, sharpen the brain, and assist with medical recovery. Encouraging the child to learn an instrument or write music can give her a positive outlet to express herself. It can even help you gauge where she is emotionally, as you look for clues in the messages of her favorite songs or lyrics she has written. Playing or enjoying music can also be a meditative experience (see more about the benefits of meditation below).
Pet/Animal Therapy: If you’re a pet owner, you know that the furry friends we love can stir up the warmest feelings and break through our worst moods. Not only does their positive energy uplift us in the moment, but their companionship can reduce depression, instill a sense of security, treat the effects of trauma, raise self-esteem, and benefit children who are going through medical crises or treatments. The loyalty of a dog, in particular, can help children to feel more secure. When a child feels like no one understands them, the common exception is the family pet, who is an expert in unconditional love. Animal caretaking duties can also provide responsibility, structure, and physical exercise. Beyond the family pet, a certified therapy dog can be taught specialized skills in order to complete tasks, predict and intervene in unsafe situations, provide motivation, and assist with emotional regulation.
Equine/Horse Therapy: Horse riders benefit from both physical and emotional healing. The rhythmic walk of the horse provides sensory feedback to the rider and, in turn, the rider must both shift weight and relax into the gait of the animal, which exercises the child’s ability to predict, respond to patterns, trust, and also adapt to spontaneous changes. Other positive benefits include increases in self-acceptance, confidence, trust, impulse control, boundaries, and social skills. A therapist and horse handler walks alongside the horse to ensure that the rider is safe or adapt the activity to the needs of children with physical disabilities when needed.
Ecotherapy: The idea behind ecotherapy is that there are therapeutic benefits to experiencing nature firsthand. It sounds overly simplistic, yet most families struggle to prioritize this important time with the natural world. If a child’s innate connection to nature is broken, he may suffer from restlessness, overstimulation, depression, or anxiety. Time spent in nature provides opportunities for uninhibited thoughts and actions, exploration, a natural sense of security, wonder, and sensory integration. Experiences in nature also build resilience for children to draw upon when they’re faced with challenges. Things like playing in the leaves, going for hikes, picnicking at the park, gardening, swimming at the lake, playing in the snow, and trips up north to the cabin are invigorating in ways that most of our day-to-day activities are not. A lot of county and city parks throughout Wisconsin offer educational programs for children, free or low-cost equipment rental, and family-friendly activities such as nature hikes. Positive lifelong memories guaranteed!
Art Therapy: Art therapy utilizes many art forms to promote wellbeing through the creative process. According to the American Art Therapy Association, this process can help clients to “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” In addition to their skills in visual arts, art therapists are trained in counseling theories and techniques and human development. Art therapy can assist children with self-reflection and self-expression. This is facilitated by activities such as poetry, writing, drawing, painting, drama, sculpture, photography, graphic design, dance, ceramics, and music.
Movement Therapy: Movement therapy helps children to connect back to their bodies, build self-esteem, and express themselves. Movement can be positive for any child in these ways, but to home in on an intentional therapeutic process, you might consider locating a Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist or an Occupational Therapist who specializes in movement therapies. There are many forms of movement: sports, martial arts, dance, swimming, and yoga can all provide benefits such as the development of social skills and the reduction in anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness. For children whose verbal communication is strained, physical expression can provide a healthy outlet. In terms of physical therapy, research suggests that movement can even prompt damaged nerves to regenerate. There is also the age-old advice of “use it or lose it.” This is true in terms of flexibility, strength, mobility, and overall vitality.
Play Therapy/Theraplay: Children spend a lot of time playing. Through games and imaginary activities, they learn about the world and how people relate to one another. Observing play can provide parents and therapists with insight into the messages children are picking up on or experiences they have had. Through play, therapists engage with children on their level and offer them a safe outlet for more comfortable expression. Therapists can also use play to promote healthier messages and coping skills. Therapists engaging in play with children can also help them to gain insights to resolve their own problems, develop social skills, and learn emotional regulation. Theraplay is a specific type of therapy which promotes security and attachment by engaging parents with their child through playful interaction. Children learn trust and the rewards of relationship-building, while experiencing a strengthened bond with their parent(s) or caregiver(s).
Nutritional Approaches: Nutrition often plays a larger role in mental health and development than we realize, affecting mood, behavior, and brain function. With busy lives and picky eaters, it’s all too easy to let nutrition slip beneath the radar. In day-to-day scenarios of tantrums or disruptive behaviors at school, it’s good to ask yourself, “When was the last time my child ate something?” “Did she eat any quality foods of substance?” Many convenience foods are high in saturated fat, non-food chemicals, salt, and sugar (even if they don’t taste like it!) but lacking in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates that are responsible for helping your child feel stable, focused, regulated, and well. Eating regularly throughout the day, drinking plenty of water (not juices or soda), avoiding foods that have proven to be inflammatory to the child’s digestive system, and eating a varied, nutritionally complete and balanced diet comprised of whole natural foods is foundational to her daily and long-term wellness of mind and body. Talk with your pediatrician or a licensed nutritionist about any specific concerns you may have.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness can be promoted in children through a number of activities, such as focused breathing, visualization, mindful eating, nature walks, and yoga. Mindfulness is about noticing the sensations of the body during stillness, paying attention to the breath or an audio or visual experience in a focused way, filtering out the noise of daily life. Research shows that these activities relieve anxiety, increase a child’s ability to regulate his emotions, improve digestion and nutrient absorption, increase focus, have calming effects, help with sleep, and promote kindness and cooperation. A mindfulness practice reinforced by repetition can alter the way a child automatically responds to stress or regulates his behavior, resulting in a more calm and rational demeanor. Mindfulness activities are perfect for parents, too. As you know, adults aren’t immune to stress and overstimulation, and often find themselves reacting in ways they wish they hadn’t, so a more mindful version of you is going to have positive effects on your child, as well.
Who Can I Turn to for Help?
Therapists, special education teachers, or social workers are all excellent people to engage as you think about what other interventions might be worth trying to benefit your child. The same goes for other parents whose children have been in therapy or who may already be trying complementary interventions. It can help you, as a parent, to feel supported along the way by connecting with other parents who have been down the same road of trial and error, newness, uncertainty, and curiosity. Parents typically enjoy sharing stories of their “ah-ha” moments; what worked for them or how they discovered new insights into the inner world of their child. They may inform you of a type of therapy you have never heard of that you can look into, things that didn’t work for their child, and recommendations for local therapists and practitioners. Just remember that every child is unique, and what works for some is not an automatic answer for others.
Rely on your instincts as the person who spends the most time with your child; but be careful of giving way to the anxiety that often sets in when we’re not sure what the right path is, or you may find yourself trying too many interventions and ending up with more confusion than you began with. Slow and steady is best, and trying one new thing at a time (and giving it a chance to work) will help you to determine what is helpful and what is not. Too much change or too many activities can leave your child feeling unsure and unstable. Remember that balance is key and we’re here to support you as you navigate your child’s options.
Types of Therapy (please note that this list includes therapies for both adults and children)
Coalition Tip Sheet: Uncovering Myths about Therapy
Sensory Integration Therapy/Occupational Therapy
- The American Art Therapy Association
- Creative Coping Skills for Children: Emotional Support Through Arts and Crafts Activities, by Bonnie Thomas (Available in the Coalition library)
- Creative Expression Activities for Teens: Exploring Identity through Art, Craft and Journaling, by Bonnie Thomas (Available in the Coalition library)
- Healthy Habits of Mind video (kindergartners introduced to mindfulness in school, including the scholarly commentary of Dr. Richard Davidson)
- Growing Minds Today
Brings mindfulness programs to and conducts research in schools in Southeastern Wisconsin
- Yoga Sprouts! Child & Caregiver Yoga Adventures, by Katie Marie Muschlewski (book)
- Ladybird’s Remarkable Relaxation: How Children Can Use Yoga Relaxation to Help Deal with Stress, Grief, Bullying and Lack of Confidence, by Michael Chissick (Available in the Coalition library)