One of the top reasons why I love working at New Haven Residential Treatment Center is because of their emphasis on nurturing healthy relationships. We teach the concept of allowing people to make choices and to then experience related consequences rather than forcing people to do things the way we want them to. Although using force or other behavioral modification methods will frequently get negative behaviors under control for the short term, all too often these lessons are fleeting and are not internalized nor applied to the person’s life outside of treatment. Having the power to make choices helps us take more ownership in our lives.
At New Haven, we frequently use animals to help students learn about themselves and their own relationship patterns. Horses are a great tool for this because they are inherently social and depend on each other for a sense of security. A few years ago, I was helping one of my students train a young mare. At the time, this student had been really struggling with following rules and keeping herself safe. Because of her poor choices, she had lost some freedoms and was feeling unhappy. As the student spent time with the horse (Kala), the student began to see parallels between her own patterns and the horse’s patterns. This student was able to recognize that in order for Kala to have a positive relationship with humans and thus have a peaceful life as a domestic horse, Kala needed to accept and internalize certain life lessons that the student was trying to teach her. These lessons included having good ground manners, respecting people, giving to pressure, trusting a human to be on her back, and not being overly afraid of new things. The student couldn’t force Kala to learn these lessons or to adopt these positive behaviors however. In fact, if she had tried to force Kala, she probably would have created resentment in Kala which would have led to an unsafe situation for herself and the horse. The student had to allow Kala to make choices and to experience the related consequences that come as a result of the choice. By making correct choices, Kala would find release from pressure as well as praise from the student. Kala’s sense of comfort with people was increased and her relationship with the student grew. Throughout this process, the student was able to realize that the same concept existed for her. As she made positive choices in her life, she would experience greater peace, increased freedom, and healthier relationships.
The concept of choice is powerful. It allows for internal locus of control to take the reins in life decisions rather than seeing external situations as single -handedly determining our life direction. It pulls us away from the message of “Make this choice because you have to” and teaches the lesson of “Make this choice because it will result in a more positive outcome in your life.” As my student learned to make positive choices for herself, her life became more manageable and her experiences became more enjoyable. If we had “forced” the student through coercion or manipulation to make certain choices, she would have lost trust in us and likely increased in her oppositionality. However, as she was given the freedom and guidance to make correct choices, as she had seen Kala do, she was able to create her own positive pathway and take ownership for her life path. Through her work with the horse, the student was able to learn the value of choice and was able to make significant strides in her own healing journey.
By, Karolee Koller LCSW