My phone rang and it was a call from my adoption agency’s post-adoption team. “So Mandy, how is it going?” the post-adoption social worker asked. We had been home just a couple of months from China, but it felt like so much longer. Everything was hard in those early days.
“We need help,” I said as I started sobbing. “We are struggling.” I wondered, “Was this hard place our new normal?” I feared it was.
In my professional life, I was a professor who loved doing academic research. This natural desire to learn and discover drove me to read everything I could get my hands on to prepare for the biggest role of my life as Lydia’s mommy before we adopted her. My husband did the same (he grew up with 20 foster siblings). We flew across the country for training. We were as prepared as any couple could be with head knowledge and even some experience, but in the thick of it, we needed help. The great thing is, because we did all of that training ahead of time, we recognized we needed the help of a professional. Others said “give it more time” but my gut said we needed more than just time. Our pediatrician dismissed my concerns.
Yes, we were cocooning.
Yes, we were co-sleeping.
Yes, we were attempting to bottle feed.
Yes, we were using TBRI as best we could, but that was difficult without a common language.
In those first few months, I was staying up late rereading all of the go-to adoption parenting books and the latest research in scholarly publications because that is what I do. I was trying to apply these techniques to our life. I was tired. I was overwhelmed. I was losing hope. My husband was losing hope too.
In those days, I remember thinking, “My husband and I have a strong marriage, we will endure this together.” My only hope was surviving, but not thriving. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I felt alone and defeated. I was scared. I felt like a failure as a new mom. I felt like a baby sitter, an overwhelmed one.
All of these thoughts were crossing my mind as I listened to the post-adoption social worker. She gently responded, “Mandy, I hear the sadness in your voice, talk to me about what is going on.” I shared with her our observations, and she recommended that we seek out a therapist trained in Theraplay.
“Oh, my university has a play therapy institute. Perfect!” I replied.
“No, Mandy, you need to find a therapist trained specifically in Theraplay – it is an attachment based play therapy modality. Dr. Purvis writes about it in The Connected Child. After two weeks, you will likely notice a positive difference.”
“Two weeks?” I questioned in disbelief. She was correct, we saw changes in only two weeks.
So what is Theraplay?
According to the Theraplay Institute, “Theraplay is a structured play therapy for children and their parents. Its goal is to enhance attachment, self-esteem, trust in others and joyful engagement. The sessions are fun, physical, and interactive and replicate the natural, healthy interaction between parents and children. Children have been referred for a wide variety of problems including withdrawn or depressed behavior, overactive-aggressive behavior, temper tantrums, phobias, and difficulty socializing and making friends.” The activities focus on structure, engagement, nurture, and challenge.
Theraplay was developed by a clinical psychologist to help address the needs of little ones in Head Start in Chicago. The chronological age of the majority of Theraplay clients is from birth to 12 years old, though teenagers have also benefited.
The treatment plan varies by client and family, but typically, treatment occurs over 18-25 weekly sessions with scheduled follow-up appointments. At the first appointment, the parent or parents meet with the therapist to discuss concerns. During the second and third appointments, each parent is observed interacting with their child and completing a series of tasks using the Marschak Interaction Method (MIM) – these two sessions are often filmed and reviewed with the parent or parents during the fourth session.
Early on in our treatment, our therapist Kristen led all of the Theraplay sessions, with us always present, and with our level of participation increasing at each session. During the sessions, we played fun games that would help our family engage, connect, and interact in helpful and fun ways. Some of the activities might seem to be “babyish” when you think about your child’s chronological age, but for many children from hard places, the emotional age is much less. Over time, my husband and I took on a more active role in the sessions, with our therapist giving us feedback. We also do Theraplay activities daily in our home without our therapist.
What I’ve Learned
Often, when I tell adoptive families about Theraplay and how wonderful our experience has been with our therapist, families are quick to ask me for examples of the Theraplay activities. You can find a limited number of Theraplay activities for young children and older children and teens on their site. However, I want to stress that Kristen, our therapist, has been instrumental in monitoring our interactions, providing critical feedback, modeling new techniques for us, and customizing games and activities to Lydia’s needs and capabilities. Kristen has been able to pick up on areas of concern that others assured us were no big deal. She also identified areas of concern that we totally missed. The magic isn’t just Theraplay in isolation – the magic lies in a trained therapist (an expert) utilizing Theraplay and customizing attachment advice to our family. I wish each reader of No Hands But Ours could have a Kristen cheering on your family. Every single day, we pray for Kristen and we thank the Lord for the gift of her expertise.
Saying “yes” to attachment therapy was the best decision we made for our family’s healing, well being, and attachment. But, there were a lot of convenient and valid reasons for us to say “no.” We pay 100% out of pocket for each session, and because money is tight we canceled cable to pay for therapy. We drive three hours round trip for each appointment. Yes, the closest therapist trained in Theraplay is far away from where we live. However, we choose to view this time as almost a family date. We drive to the big city, go to therapy, and enjoy a lunch date together. When our sessions became more spaced out, my husband and I both said how much we missed our family dates to the big city for therapy. In addition, I believe that the Lord handpicked our therapist for our family, and she just so happens to be far away. It is all about perspective. Honestly, I think there was also a level of fear revealing how broken our family was to someone else, but that’s not a healthy reason to say “no” to therapy, and it is all the more reason to say yes. I hate to think where our family would be if we had said “no” to attachment therapy.
Although we sought out attachment therapy to help Lydia heal, attachment therapy has helped my husband and I heal, grow, and change. Early on during our sessions, I think I got my feelings hurt when Kristen corrected something I was doing, and as a result I wasn’t convinced that this was the right move for our family. Embarrassingly, I felt like perhaps our therapist was too hard on me (looking back, this is not the case and I find it comical…but I was exhausted and depleted at the time). When I started to reflect on her feedback, I realized that I was asking Lydia to change behaviors and to make herself vulnerable, and I needed to invite myself to that same place to be vulnerable and to make changes in myself. If I was asking Lydia to be vulnerable, I needed to model vulnerability. If I was asking her to be patient, I needed to model patience. If I was asking Lydia to change hard to change behaviors, I needed to model that I was doing the same. It is not about changing our child, it is about making everyone in our family healthier, and sometimes we parents have unhealthy behaviors too.
If you seek out an attachment therapist, and you feel some dissonance and are thinking about quitting, ask yourself if this is because there is something in you that needs to change or something in your past that you need to address. Sometimes parenting kids from hard places or going to attachment therapy can trigger some stuff in us too – stuff we need to deal with. Dr. Purvis and Dr. Cross (2007) write, “If you leave the therapist’s office experiencing physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, or with the urge to run away you could be having a fear reaction triggered by pain from your own past. Treat yourself gently and take some time to look at issues from your own history that pre-dated your child” (p. 227).
If you are interested in looking for an attachment therapist, below are some questions I asked when trying to locate one (this was based on our agency’s feedback) —
- Will you allow me to stay in and be present for all sessions? How will you involve me? (red flag if they won’t allow you to stay in the session)
- Talk with me about your experience treating children adopted internationally?
- What is your level of familiarity with TBRI? Talk with me about your training in TBRI? (My family loves the work of Dr. Purivs and Dr. Cross.)
If you are interested in locating a Theraplay trained therapist, visit the website here. However, no therapists anywhere near us were listed online. We had to call Theraplay, and because of their help, were able to find our therapist who was within driving distance. So if none are listed, call.
For our children’s special needs, many of us travel and seek out the help of the best medical doctors. However, I’ve realized that Lydia’s greatest special need is not the one that was listed in her file. To help bring healing, I must put that same tenacity into healing her attachment challenges and trauma by seeking out help from the best therapist.
Attachment therapy using Theraplay has helped Lydia attach to me and it has helped me attach to Lydia. Attachment therapy has given our family HOPE. Our home is full of laughter. We now have great days. Our new normal involves cuddles, laughter, and hope. Sure, we still have hard days, but we have mostly great ones.