Children challenged by AD(H)D often feel alienated and abandoned by parents, siblings, teachers, and peers. If left untreated, or treated with ignorance, anger, aggressive frustration, excessive punishment, neglect, violence, and/or abuse, AD(H)D can lead to a serious conduct disorder and, in severe cases, to the development of an anti-social disorder. While all who come into contact with the unpredictable behavior of AD(H)D feel a sense of angry resentment, no one feels the anger, pain, shame, and humiliating sense of failure more than the child, and those closest to him, his parents and teachers.
Many families referred to the Parent-Child Treatment Centers in Israel have children challenged by AD(H)D. However, the AD(H)D factor is often seen as a side issue of family dysfunction, and not as a critical cause of family distress. AD(H)D can, and does, elicit feelings of exhaustion and entrapment in the strongest of families. If the family is already dysfunctional and vulnerable, then AD(H)D untreated can exacerbate the chaos and lead to familial strife and disintegration.
HAMA’s AD(H)D projects clearly identify and isolate the disorder and give the children, their parents, and their teachers a support group comprised of three elements: education, socialization, and emotional internalization. The children, their parents, and their teachers all intently feel the express need to help each other, as well as themselves, overcome their daily confrontation with anger, frustration, fear and sense of aching helplessness.
The unique linkage between human and animal welfare is the cornerstone of HAMA's philosophy and activities. Animals rescued and rehabilitated from human abuse and neglect, as well as from wartime injury and abandonment, have in turn become important facilitators of human recovery and rehabilitation. HAMA serves citizens of all ages and ethnic, religious and national backgrounds, with a particular emphasis on children and families at risk from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Avshalom Beni, Founder and Director of HAMA, worked in the capacity of social worker and educator at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud’s Institute of Special Education from 1984 until 1997, when he embarked upon his own dream of initiating one of Israel's first Animal Assisted Therapy Programs. Avshalom sought to find a new expression to his life’s work in reaching out and working for both human and animal welfare through mutual empowerment and healing, inherent in the human-animal bond.
HAMA’s dynamic and creative utilization of AAT addresses the ongoing challenges that so many of Israel's citizens are facing today, from the elderly survivors of the Holocaust to children living and learning at risk in the shadows of war and poverty. HAMA's human staff and their canine and feline “co-therapists" project a sense of family and belonging, with whom people of all ages can identify, and subsequently internalize their own experiences without the fear of being judged or negated.
How these Issues Reflect our Mission
For a child who loves animals, the primary force of human-animal bonding provides a remarkable motivation to reach outward and inward, to heal his animal companion and be healed in return. Our canine and feline helpers and friends are living bridges. They are not meant to make children love animals more, although that happens by itself quite naturally; rather their primary mission is to help children love themselves more, and to help parents discover the lost child within themselves. In this way, both child and parent can make the journey home again together. By bringing the child into a partnership with a loved canine or feline, that child can feel the responsibility of being a "guardian" or "surrogate parent". He can begin to comprehend and communicate his own needs, understand the role of his parents and his place in the family, and celebrate his own uniqueness through that special relationship he develops with his canine or feline friend
Our cats and dogs touch human souls in many different ways. They come in every size, age, breed, and color, much like the diverse groups of human beings who love them. Most importantly, they put people of all ages in touch with their own anxieties, wishes, dreams, and harsh realities. They find their soul mates in the children and parents and teachers who choose them for their own very special reasons.
The power of human-animal bonding is at its best when it helps humans cross the bridge to each other. This is what HAMA and Animal Assisted Therapy are all about. We help children and parents and teachers "see" each other through their animal companions. We help them comprehend and communicate their needs by understanding their own perspective roles as parents and children and educators of value. This is what we and our animal helpers have learned, and continue learning, to do over the years of our involvement with people and animals, and we do it with both pride and humility.
Our AD(H)D Program in cooperation with the Ben-Zvi Elementary School and the Parent-Child Center in Ness Tsiona is committed to achieving the following goals:
1. Dismissing the notion that AD(H)D is a function of socio-economic distress
AD(H)D is not a disorder limited to socio-economically or educationally disadvantaged families, although these families do feel the impact of AD(H)D all the more since they have fewer resources available to them. This program in the past has received requests for assistance from all socio-economic sectors in the Ness Tsiona community through the Department of Social Services. Although poorer families with fewer resources were given first priority, a pressing need for such programs for all residents is clearly indicated. Our success in this program has generated a call for help from many diverse communities throughout the country.
2. Relieving the child of sole responsibility for all problems at home and in the classroom: AD(H)D is a shared responsibility.
The mutual participation of teachers, parents, and children gradually releases the child from the burden of being the “Identified Patient” for family dysfunction. With the assistance of certified family therapists and social workers, parents and teachers are guided and coached to effectively reach out to their children and students and gain a greater awareness of their individual needs and limitations. Many of the parents and teachers come to understand that they, too, were AD(H)D kids without the support of family and school. The participating parents and educators re-experience their own pain and alienation as children, and come to understand how much they can do now, as adults with AD(H)D, to "make it right" – not only for their children and students, but for themselves as well.
3. Recognizing the importance of school cooperation and participation
The schools that cooperate and join HAMA's program play a critical role in assisting children and their families challenged with AD(H)D. The schools involved have expressed a keen interest and need to develop an educational-psychological resource for helping students and teachers alike. This need is clear in light of the realities in Israel's public schools, where 40 children per class is commonplace. As a direct result of our programs, parents and teachers establish a more positive and mutually constructive communication, which in turn, facilitate a positive change in attitude not only in the children and their parents, but in the teachers, guidance counselors, and principals as well. Stress and conflict from within the family, often triggered and exacerbated by complaints from teachers, are significantly reduced once a cooperative effort generated by the program takes root at home and in school.
4. Nurturing self-belief and partnership in the child: The child’s right to understand the medical intervention in his body
All children admitted to our Program are diagnosed with AD(H)D by neurologists and/or child psychiatrists, and all are prescribed Ritalin for better attention and concentration in the classroom. While it is clear that some of the children perform better at school while under the influence of Ritalin, it is our program's express objective to underline the importance of concurrent psychological and educational reinforcement. The child learns that the pill is not a "magic solution” to all behavioral problems; through AAT, he experiences that true emotional, cognitive, and social change is first and foremost a function of his/her own inner strengths, skills, and aptitudes, which in turn are strengthened by viable support systems at home and in school. The pill certainly does, in specific cases, help these individual strengths surface and become focused by increasing the child's attention span and ability to concentrate. In order to facilitate a positive dialogue between the child and his parents, teachers, and doctors with regard to the advantages and disadvantages of taking the pill, the child must become, in effect, a responsible and active partner to what is happening inside and outside his body. By having the children refrain from taking Ritalin on the morning of their weekly therapeutic session with HAMA, we prove to these kids that they too play an important part in controlling their lives. After the completion of each weekly session, the children resume their prescribed dose of Ritalin one half hour before entering the classroom (upon request of the school), with the knowledge that the pill might indeed be a necessary facilitator of better concentration. But the children learn that this pill is not a cure-all, and that capabilities and responsibilities of their lives are ultimately their own. In this way, they begin to understand that it is they who help the pill help them. When the children, parents, or teachers report that the medication has not worked over a sustained period of time, we recommend that a follow-up diagnosis be conducted. It has been our experience that AD(H)D is often a quick and easy label which could be masking or accompanying other serious underlying disorders such as depression, anxiety, and emotional duress, all of which are unresponsive to, and sometimes exacerbated by, Ritalin.
Whenever possible HAMA endeavors in its work with children to let the child establish a bond with the cat or dog he chooses, who in return may choose him. For the duration of weekly therapy, which may vary from four months to over a year, the child and his dog are companions and partners. What enables the bonding as well as the progress in therapy is an authentic and mutual empathy.
The story of Ben is indicative of the process. Ben took part in our Parent-Child-Teacher AAT-AD(H)D Group at an elementary school in Ness Tsiona this past year. He was described by his teacher as a "ruthless bully", much bigger and heavier, even clumsier than his classmates. The children called him "Cyclops". His parents were very defensive. They saw him as a "labeled and discriminated victim" of educational intolerance. When asked to select a companion dog for the program, Ben was the only child who asked to be with two dogs. He selected "Triad", a n undisciplined but very smart looking, sleek street dog who had lost the use of his hind leg through violence, but who more than compensated for the loss by proving himself "the leader of the pack". He would steal toys from the other dogs, start quarrels over treats, pull at the lead, and pee on the plants in the corridors. The little boy was thrilled by the bravado of this good-natured little rough neck, but interestingly enough did not feel complete in his selection. He chose another dog as well.
Ben chose Frankie, an old shy dog who had been severely disfigured by a violent human father when he was just a puppy. His upper jaw had been broken and his palate severely injured. After several very intensive attempts at corrective surgery to heal the gaping hole in his upper palate had failed, nobody expected Frankie to survive. But, the dog nevertheless did survive. Something inside him gave him the power to live. That was how Ben interpreted it, but he also saw the scars from Frankie's abuse. Frankie was timid and afraid and evidently felt very vulnerable to attack and ridicule from other dogs and humans alike. This vulnerability touched Ben very deeply. Ben would engage his canine friends in long talks. He explained over and over again to Triad the importance of helping Frankie execute tasks that were simple for him but challenging for Frankie, while all the time telling Frankie that he had to learn how to believe in himself and stand up for his rights.
Ben felt tremendous pride in his dogs' achievements and called them his "A Team". Indeed, when a child interacts with his chosen animal companion and helper in this way he is essentially reaching deep inside himself and engaging in a dialogue with his own internal world of conflict and reconciliation. Ben not only helped Triad redirect his aggressive tendencies, but he also recognized his own vulnerability and fear of aggression through Frankie. The process of healing was reciprocal. Both Ben and his two diametrically opposed canine companions experienced mutual empowerment through the therapeutic encounter. And because both parents and teacher were part of the process they could finally understand Ben's own ongoing struggle to integrate the one need to appear strong with the other no less compelling need to reach out and ask for help and protection. Both Parents and teacher experienced a similar bonding among themselves after a prolonged period of mutual distrust and suspicion.
The success of HAMA's AAT Program with Ben was evidenced by a marked decrease of aggression in school and at home, a better academic performance, a greater desire to help others, and most importantly, a much enhanced self image. Not every story has a happy ending, but there are enough stories like this one to make all of us at HAMA, humans and animals alike, feel a little bit wiser, and a little bit better about ourselves every time a story like this comes to life.
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