“Deep breaths, regulate, feel your feet on the ground, keep breathing,” went my inner dialogue as I sat there shocked and horrified. “This is therapy?” a little voice in my head kept asking, “Where is the compassion, the attunement, the healing?” I worked hard to stay regulated and to keep from bolting out of the room; but every cell in my body held the knowledge that this video I was watching, of a prominent play therapist working with a young adopted child, was fundamentally wrong. The child crying and begging for the therapist to “stop it!” and the therapist continuing to impose her jarring interventions, completely disregarding the 3-year old’s desperate pleas. It was horrifying. For a young child who has experienced the level of disempowerment and helplessness that inherently go along with trauma, an experience like this (with an adult she is told is safe and trustworthy) can have detrimental effects and risks.
Psychotherapy and psychology have the capacity to help people deeply heal and reach their highest potential. But there is also the possibility of doing harm and re-traumatizing individuals in the name of therapy. This can happen with an unaware therapist who is not doing his/her own growth work, but allowing his/her “stuff” to cloud the relationship with the client and the client’s relationship with him/herself. Right here in Colorado there have been cases of children who have been killed in practices related to Attachment Therapy, through techniques such as “holding”, “re-birthing”, “rage reduction therapy” and others. I am by no means trying to fear-monger here and these cases are incredibly rare anomalies. But they reflect a desperation and helplessness that families of traumatized children feel and an egoic, pathological approach on the part of some practitioners.
I am writing this because I feel a need to share with my readers the tremendous importance of finding a therapist whose approach and core values are aligned with a child’s fundamental needs for love, understanding, attunement, empathy and respect. And sometimes this is not the most experienced therapist or the therapist with the most degrees or certificates. I know many therapists in their first five years of private practice who do absolutely brilliant work and have a deep, essential understanding of human psychology and behavior. And, as in the workshop I sat through this weekend, there are therapists with years of experience under their belt who suffer from compassion fatigue and project their repressed emotions onto their clients. Therapy is about a relationship that is based in empathy, compassion, openness and positive regard. Techniques or approaches that shame or belittle an individual and do not value his/her sense of self are probably not going to have a sustainable positive impact.
When choosing a therapist for your child, it is vital to trust your intuition and to ask questions. If you are wondering about changes you see in your child’s behavior, techniques the therapist may be using, how you can support the therapeutic process, or anything else simply ask your therapist. And if your therapist is not able or willing to consult with parents and explain his/her approach, it’s probably not the therapist for you. While resistance is a normal part of the therapeutic process and children don’t always come eagerly (particularly when working on some difficult material), a good therapist is able to distinguish between resistance and re-traumatization. The former can be worked through, the latter can be very risky for a child.
The majority of psychotherapists, counselors and psychologists working in the field today are good practitioners: well-trained, knowledgeable, empathic and genuinely caring for the well-being of their clients. Therapy is a powerful tool that can change lives for the better and can allow children to heal from stress or trauma and to live happier, more balanced lives. I believe so strongly in the power of the work I do. It is truly amazing. And I want to encourage families in search of a therapist to do their research and ensure that the therapist they choose is practicing with integrity and openness.