“I want to let kids be kids, while also helping them grow the skills they need to be able to simply feel happier and relieve some of the pressure they might feel.”
What was your path to becoming a child therapist?
It only took one introductory psychology course in college for me to fall in love with the field. I always wanted to work with children, and I learned that social work would provide me with the most opportunities and access to that kind of work. While earning my MSW at Columbia University, my first internship was at an elementary school in the Bronx, and that sealed the deal for me. I was counseling kids from second to fifth grade, and I loved giving them a safe space to be open with an adult who they could rely on and share a trustworthy relationship with. The school setting was perfect – kids are just so fun and funny, and they keep you on your toes. I did branch out a bit to working in hospitals and the foster care systems, but schools have always felt like the space where I could be most effective in my work.
How has your training as a teacher informed your practice?
At first, I wasn’t sure if I should pursue a Masters in Teaching in addition to my degree in social work, but it turned out to be such a perfect match for the work I do. You really have to understand child development to understand education and therapy and what’s expected of kids, what milestones they should be reaching, and what’s realistic and what’s not. A lot of my understanding about child development was reinforced by the classes I took while becoming a teacher, and that education helped me understand why students behave in certain ways in and out of the classroom. I got to see firsthand the unbelievable pressure kids are under every day. It also provided me with crucial insights into the needs of both teachers and parents, and how to navigate the challenges that they’re facing as well.
What is your approach to providing therapy to children?
Ultimately, I want to provide a safe space where a young person and I can build off of a trusting relationship. I want to let kids be kids, while also helping them grow the skills they need to be able to simply feel happier and relieve some of the pressure they might feel. I want to support them emotionally, and then we can practice the skills they’re learning together. That way, they can take them and apply them outside of our sessions, when they’re feeling overwhelmed or they’re triggered into negative behavior at home or in the classroom. At the end of the day, kids are kids, and despite differences in backgrounds or socio-economic status, they all present their pain and challenges in very similar ways. My work is to create that place where they can decompress and build up the tools they need on an ongoing basis.
Do stigmas about mental health affect your work with children?
What’s wonderful about elementary-age kids is that they don’t yet know the stigma behind any sort of mental health or therapy, and they’re actually excited about the work that we do together. They know it’s a space where they can come and get one-on-one attention, which can be super rare for them. They get to be in charge in a way, which is part of my approach in letting them lead and building in the direction they take. As they transition into adolescence, there’s definitely an interesting shift. Teenagers are very aware of the stigmas in our culture, and they’re embarrassed by everything. But they shouldn’t be. I wish so badly that mental health was part of preventive health care – it’s almost shocking that it isn’t. Normalizing it would take things a huge step in the right direction.
What does a first session with you look like?
I like to meet with the child and parents separately, so I can hear both of their perspectives on why they’re there, what they’re looking for, and what their expectations are. It’s important to have that conversation away from each other – both because kids are under a lot of pressure from their parents, but also because I want parents to be able to be honest with me and unafraid to say something they wouldn’t say in front of their children. During the session with the child, I use a lot of games and art projects to create that comfortable and casual space, where conversation flows naturally and openly. Games also bring life lessons with them, like how to take turns and how to lose gracefully. I want to introduce the session as a place where kids feel like they can have fun and be in control, and then we can move from there into talking or working on something specific.
“You really have to understand child development to understand education and therapy and what’s expected of kids, what milestones they should be reaching, and what’s realistic and what’s not.”
Interested in speaking with Mary?