By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
As a therapist who loves working with young girls, I see so many who struggle with all of the typical issues that adolescents face: low self- worth, body image issues and friendship insecurities, just to name a few.
I try to be creative and speak in ways they can relate to, and frankly, terms like “self-love” and “self-acceptance” just don’t always seem to cut it. So that’s how I started “dog talk.” When I ask my young clients if they have or love a dog, most of the time, their faces light up. I mean, who doesn’t love a dog? Aside from the occasional person who has been bitten and may prefer cats, I find that it is easy for my clients to relate to dog talk.
Ask almost any young girl how she would speak to her dog if it were hurt. How would she treat it if it were tired or hungry? “If your dog was whining for food, would you ever in a million years think of depriving it or making it go hungry?” I ask them. “If your dog had a roll on her tummy would you judge or hate her? If another dog snarled at her, would you think your dog was unworthy or unlovable?”
“Of course not,” they respond, horrified to even imagine such a thing. Their answers are no surprise. It is much easier for young girls to access their heart, their compassion and their common sense when it comes to an animal they love, and I find it can frequently be transferred to the way they view themselves.
I often ask girls to conjure the feeling they have inside when they think of their dog. I ask them to notice how loving they feel and then to imagine seeing themselves that way. It might not always take at first, but with some practice, they can access feelings that are usually reserved for their beloved pet.
I also teach my clients about what I refer to as, “dog breed theory.” So many of the young girls I see think they should look or be like someone else. If only they looked like Olivia, or had a body like Rebecca, or played sports like Chloe or were more outgoing like Jasmine. I explain to them that we are all different breeds. Just like there are shy Chihuahuas, tough bulldogs and outgoing labs, we are all supposed to be different from one another. (I know I am generalizing here to make a point. There are tough little Chihuahuas and soft, sweet bulldogs but bear with me if you will!) My point is, we need shy people and we need outgoing people and it all balances out in the end. And we all need different things, being the breeds that we are.
Being a sensitive, hide-under-the-bed breed myself, I always found that I took things much more to heart than my tougher-skinned siblings. (And heaven help the trembling puppies with siblings of the growling variety!) It took me a long time to learn that there are no “good” or “bad” breeds. We all simply need different things. As a youngster (prior to knowing my breed theory!), when someone called me “too sensitive,” I often walked away in shame (dare I say with my tail between my legs!) But as I got older and more accepting of my breed, when someone commented on my sensitivity, I merely agreed and went on with my day.
Helping my clients learn to accept who they are — and who they aren’t — is essential, and it is so liberating for them when they finally do.
I also use dog talk to help young girls navigate the ever-so-painful process of “friend-shifts.” You know, best friends with Julie for four years and now she won’t even speak to her? Grew up and played sports with Madison since second grade and now she’s hanging with a bad crowd? Hard not to take it personally, I know. I think we all know. But when I talk to them about walking their dog and noticing how their pet ignores some dogs, stops to sniff others and might even attack another, this has no bearing on whether any of the dogs are worthy or lovable. We simply have chemistry and connection or we don’t, and it is not personal.
So, lets teach our kids to love themselves as much, or even half as much as they love their dogs. (Cats if they are cat lovers!)
Let’s remind them that we are all supposed to be different. We are all meant to be different breeds.
And let’s help our girls to see friendships as friend-shifts that are ever changing and nothing personal. Easier said than done? You bet. But we can find a way in, to help our girls be kinder to themselves, and what better way than dog talk.