Searching for an Attachment Therapist? 4 Suggestions to Ponder
As parents consider therapy for their adopted or foster child, they often consult other families to gather names of potential therapists. Parents usually ask, “Do you like the therapist?” or “Do they understand RAD?” but they typically do not ask, “What type of therapy does the therapist use?” Most people tend to think, “Therapy is therapy . . . ” though there are numerous approaches, including: Gestalt, Cognitive, Behavioral, Theraplay, Play therapy, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, and Psychodynamic. It is important for families to choose a therapist they like personally in addition to someone who has formal training to heal their child from past loss and trauma . . . this is a BIG decision.
The following are ideas to mull over as you conduct your search for the best therapy and therapist for your child. (Additionally, I have compiled a list of questions to ask potential therapists in your pursuit. You can find these questions by joining my online Community parent support group or on page 125 -126 of The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide)
- Adoption and Fostering is a specialization . Many child therapists do not realize that the area of adoption and fostering is a specialization much like eating disorders or addiction treatment. Erroneously, they believe they are qualified to work with adopted and foster kids. Therefore, the parent must be proactive in their quest for a qualified, educated therapist and ask, “What is your experience and training in the specialty area of adoption/foster care?” Parents can gauge the therapist’s experience by asking, “In your practice, what is the percentage of children who are adopted or in foster care?” A therapist whose caseload contains at least 25-30% of adopted or foster kids is a good candidate. Another possibility is a therapist being supervised by a more experienced clinician whose caseload is at this level.
- Find a therapy suitable for a lifetime. Find a therapist who uses a therapeutic approach that you and your child will be able to utilize through the lifespan. In my opinion, losing a parent by physical or emotional unavailability through divorce, death, abandonment, mental or physical illness is the greatest loss a child can suffer. For this reason, the child will meet issues of loss throughout their lifetime. The re-experience or triggers of loss will arise in a unique fashion for each individual; the loss may become evident at Father’s or Mother’s Day, for others it may present upon their birthday, family vacations, or at the birth of their own children. Nevertheless, we want to equip children with skills they can implement when their sorrow displays itself.
I prefer a therapeutic approach parents can learn and implement at home. My goal is to teach parents how to help their child, and in turn for the child to learn how to help him or her self as they mature to adulthood.
Let’s look at the example of twenty five year old, Savannah, who lost her father’s emotional availability upon her parent’s divorce at age five. Over the years, Savannah has struggled to win her father’s attention as he is distracted by alcohol, overworking, and philandering. Savannah has been in therapy, off and on, since age five. Luckily, her therapist uses processing therapies, Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and therefore, Savannah recognizes her triggers and knows how to help herself when they occur.
Savannah is married to a wonderful man, Saul. They have a son, Marc and are expecting a little girl next month. As her due date approaches, Savannah is increasingly nervous about Marc’s acceptance of her necessary level of attention to his new sister. Savannah is quite anxious and through her discussions with Saul, recognizes that she is being triggered by her own past trauma of losing her father’s attention. Savannah sits down and identifies her feelings, scared, and her negative self-beliefs, I’m not good enough anymore; It always has to be something new to get attention. Over time, Savannah is able to work through another piece of her past loss with the steps she learned from her therapist. Savannah knows if she is not able to resolve this past hurt she can return to therapy for additional help. (The steps of resolving past trauma can be found in Chapter 9 of The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide.)
- Know your therapist’s therapeutic approach. A therapist should be able to tell you their therapeutic approach and the reasons they selected it. As an example: To work on a past loss or trauma, I prefer a processing therapy as my main style with behavior therapy as a secondary style. Processing therapies assist a child to be in a past trauma and safely re-create it, with mom or dad, to a new ending or Corrective Emotional Experience. Behavior therapy focuses on increasing or reinforcing desired behavior and reducing, with the goal of eliminating, an undesired behavior. Behavior therapy helps a parent to manage a child’s behavior; it does not correct the child’s past trauma or loss but remains a necessary part of the parenting toolbox.
- Give the therapy adequate, not excessive time. Recently, a mom mentioned her daughter’s therapy, and said, “We’ve been doing play therapy for the past year and I’m not noticing any difference. I mean, I think I could play Candy Land with her at home!” The therapist needs some time to get to know your family and child but should be talking, playing, or working on past issues within the first four sessions. Most child therapists use toys, dolls, and art as part of the child’s therapy but the main focus is on the child’s issues and not on play.
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