Children’s Response to
Team Velvet’s Approach
Team Velvet Inc. provides free services to all children admitted into the program.
It is difficult to convey to the public the degree to which child trauma causes children to suffer. Typically we hear ‘kids are resilient and they will get over that.’ It can be more helpful to recognize that current healthcare standards consider ‘trauma informed care’ as basic to good treatment. In a sense, the more aware all of us become at recognizing the severity of child trauma, the more we can help.
Presented here is information to inform and to inspire. The depth of traumatic impact on a child is complex and only introduced here to skim the surface. The courage with which children in these examples have responded to psychological therapy and the manner in which they have responded with love to the horses is simply inspiring.
Team Velvet Inc. utilizes cognitive-behavioral psychology in the form of the multimodal treatment model designed by the late Dr. Arnold Lazarus of Rutgers University which is integrated with the love provided by three therapy horses, each of whom offers a special gift to a child. Volunteers, peer mentors and peer helpers work in tandem with lead psychologist Dr. Susan Edwards and the child’s parent in a customized treatment design. The result is a unique contribution of resources to combat and ameliorate the tremendous stress caused by trauma.
In the case examples presented here, the nature of the trauma experienced by the child is real as is the nonmounted multimodal psychological treatment they received. Identifying information has been altered to protect any reference to an actual child and elements have been fictionalized to further serve a protective function and adhere to legal/ethical guidelines. Children’s words, emotions and behaviors are accurate as presented.
Nightmares and Loss
One of our horses is a small, delicate brown-and-white miniature horse named Little Annie. When young children have experienced parental death or abandonment, Annie is often the place they find transitional love and a big horse hug.
Two different families on two different days visited the farm for customized equine mental health treatment under Dr. Edwards’ direction. Alice and Lisa were both 7 years old when referred. Both were having nightmares, crying in their dreams and drawing pictures filled with torrential tears. Both worked with a peer helper and also with Annie. After 3 weeks each girl drew similar pictures and hugged the pony for at least five minutes each time they left the farm to go home.
Each drew the pony standing close to her and overhead was what looked like an umbrella of energy protecting them from torrential tears. Between each girl and the pony was a big red heart.
In the two separate households, parents reported the nightmares had stopped.
PTSD/ Multiple trauma/multiple handicaps
When Sally first met the psychologist she was 10 years old. She was diagnosed with PTSD/multiple trauma and a multiple physical handicaps. During the initial assessment a wind came up outside the office and blew over a trash can, making a small racket. Sally jumped up and hid under the desk where the assessment took place.
“What do you think happened?” the psychologist asked.
“Something exploded,” the child said.
“Do you worry about things exploding?” said the psychologist.
“Yes,” said Sally.
“Could you draw this for me?”
Sally drew this big explosion in many colors on her paper. “Tell me about your drawing,” said the psychologist. “What is it that’s exploding?”
“The earth,” Sally said.
“Do you worry about the earth exploding?” the psychologist asked.
“Yes,” said the girl. “I dream it sometimes.”
The psychologist picked up a blank paper and a crayon. “I think of it like this,” she said, and with that drew a picture of two large hands holding a small ball.
“What is that?” asked the girl.
“It is what I picture in my mind. These are very big hands…they are the hands of God holding the world which is like a round ball.”
“So you don’t think it will explode?” the girl asked.
“No,” said the psychologist, “I don’t think it will explode.”
Sally sighed, looked visibly relieved and went on with the assessment.
Sally was seen in nonmounted horse therapy for nearly three years. The child had this history: death of both parents, adopted from a third world country as a toddler after living in an orphanage; multiple birth defects caused by genetic factors resulting in multiple surgeries over the course of five years; adoption by a small family facilitated by a church into another country; traumatic memories re: orphanage; agitated depression; behavioral acting out in school resulting in suspension; inability to control anger; anxiety and fear; psychological treatment and referral by two different social service agencies and counselors. The last counselor, number five on the total list of helpers, said “I am discharging you. You tell me all the right answers when we talk but your behavior doesn’t change.”
Two of the key areas in which we worked with Sally involved reducing anger and argumentative behavior and increasing her cooperation with others. Initially she would verbally challenge everyone and use derogatory language to demean others and ‘put them down’ to make herself look good. At school she was frequently sent to time out/the assistant principal’s office and she did not engage with peers well in friendship behavior.
Sally’s treatment program involved extensive contingencies including a behavior plan, psychological modeling with a peer helper, successive approximation for prosocial behavior, relationship building with lead therapy horse Velvet and strengthening self-esteem with positive reinforcement and weakening negativism through cognitive behavioral treatment and strategic animal behavioral interaction.
Over the course of treatment her tantrums were reduced from daily to weekly to monthly to every other month in frequency with her ability to discuss her feelings gradually increasing. She went from being suspended from school one year to earning recognition for helping others and improving. More than a year and a half later she was designated Student of the Month, was teaching Velvet new behaviors for interacting with kids, volunteered with a partner to help at a charity event and assisted a peer helper design content for a handbook for children starting nonmounted horse therapy. She had also started to verbally encourage others to overcome difficulties, modeling the same type of encouragement she had received from her two peer helpers.
The time equivalency for the three years of clinical service provided by the psychologist totaled $23,000 of free service which did not include costs associated with all three horses, the volunteer peer mentors, peer review and two major modifications in the treatment plan.
At the end of the program, Sally moved to a junior high school and, aging out of the limits of our program, was referred to one for older children. One day while discussing the costs associated with horses and the need for the charity to do fundraising, she asked why all of this [clinical] service with a high price equivalency had been provided to her for no fee. The psychologist answered, “Team Velvet values children.”
A Padlocked Heart
As the result of a crime, an intellectually gifted five-year-old boy named Poli was hospitalized for several weeks in a psychiatric hospital where he experienced additional traumatic loss. He was then moved from one placement to another as one parent died and the other had been determined unsafe under the law to care for him. Over the course of the next few years he experienced severe psychological abuse and neglect and was the victim of ethnic bullying. After being adopted by a distant relative and having received unsuccessful counseling from multiple social service agencies, he was brought to Team Velvet at age 10 exhibiting anger and acting out behavior.
On entering the farm, he announced to the psychologist, “I will never love again.”
There is not much to be done when trauma places a padlock over a child’s heart. Science can seldom find a key.
What was a surprise to the boy was the golden colored mare named Precious who noticed him when he entered the barn. A beautiful, loving horse with a bushy, flaxen mane and large brown eyes, Precious bowed at him which took him off guard. And she continued to do so until he acknowledged her.
Over the year he came to the farm, the bond between the mare and the boy strengthened as a major part of his treatment plan was structured to increase the child’s ability to give and receive affection. Each of the three horses in the helping herd shared unique emotional gifts with the boy. Little Annie provided humor; lead therapy horse Velvet provided confrontation and challenge and Precious touched his heart.
Poli’s behavior change could be summarized in the two areas of focus in his treatment. His baseline behavior included lying and stealing candy from a convenience store which he then denied. His interpersonal style with others was distant and uninvolved. Over the course of treatment in a program designed to fit his needs and the home schooling in which he participated, his behavior changed. He went from stealing and denying it; stealing and admitting it; not stealing; and working to earn the candy and goodies he wanted by increasing honest self-statements and cooperating with those helping to raise him.
Poli also expressed much anger which he projected on to others. Having experienced the loss of a significant loved one, he had much anger related to the ‘anger stage of grief.’ His treatment program involved an explanation of the grief and loss process for children with the horses involved as silent witnesses and confidants in the process of his re-experiencing the dept of loss he felt. Over time his anger subsided and he was able to recognize the love of his significant bereaved one lived on in him.
A complex concept for children, the use of grief counseling, bibliotherapy, drawing, equine support and interaction helped to reframe the concept that death steals everything. In the end, he was able to visualize that the bereaved’s love stayed with him and lived on in his heart. This recognition was very helpful in reducing his overall level of anger and facilitated his being able to move into the final stages of grief and sense of appreciation for the role of the loved one in his life. It was partially though the bond with the therapy horse Precious and her behavior toward him that he was again able to experience the power of love without words.
At the end of a year the family was transferred and preparations were made for them to move out of state. The process of emotional change was extensive for all involved. On the last day as their car was pulling away Poli screamed out, “STOP.” He unbuckled his seat belt, said
‘I have to kiss Precious good-bye.” He ran to the barn and reaching over the stall door, he kissed the mare on her soft velvet nose. So much for never loving again.
All children selected for the program are evaluated by Dr. Edwards and the length of treatment for profound trauma often lasts a year or more. Some counseling needs are best met by other types of treatment to which children are referred.
Referral issues for children ages 5-12 may include: death of a parent, death of both parents, multiple severe trauma history, traumatic death of sibling, witnessing violence, illness of grandparent, death of grandparent, severe anxiety, PTSD, ethnic bullying – individual and systemic — financial family reversal, auto accident, physical disfigurement, death of multiple family members, parental incarceration, abandonment, and/or emotional abuse.
Counseling services are provided by volunteer licensed psychologists and may include volunteer horse helpers and peer mentors and one or more therapy horses.
Psychoeducation services are also provided in a small group program called Visits with Velvet which focuses on mental health issues of interest to children 5-12. Some of those topics include Strengthening Self-Esteem; Coping with Bullies; Persisting; Setting Goals; Friendship Skills, among others.
Early in 2020 Team Velvet started designing videos displayed on the website for use by children wishing to continue contact with the horses during the pandemic when travel was precluded. Those videos include topics of honoring essential personnel; coping with pandemic stress and one comic relief video involving a visit by the horses to the Happy Horse Hat Shop. All videos are narrated by the horses for the purpose of increasing the innate appeal of animal-assisted learning.
Most psychological services are provided by Susan Edwards, Ph.D., Psychologist/Director of Team Velvet Inc. Licensed in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Dr. Edwards continues her work as a published author/writer designing materials for children to use in helping themselves.
Team Velvet Inc. is a non-profit that does not charge fees for this valuable and life-altering equine mental health therapy for children. Team Velvet Inc. is totally supported by donations, grants and contributions and all staff are volunteers. Any and all funds given to the organization are used to support the program and farm facility where all horse therapy services are provided.