Family Therapy: The Beginning

April 5, 2017 Attachment, attachment activities, attachment challenges, Kelly, TBRI-based therapy, therapy, Trust Based Parenting, Whitney 9 Comments

Everyone said the first year was the hardest. They said that attachment takes time; relationships would grow; I needed to be patient.

I listened.

Year One passed, and I exhaled, a deep sigh, knowing that the worst was behind us.

Except it wasn’t.

Year Two progressed, and I became puzzled. Why wasn’t it getting better? Why were my children becoming even more antagonistic toward each other? I knew that it would get better, that it could get better, but I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how hard I peered into the future. I found myself becoming more short-tempered, more reactive versus proactive, more on edge. I found myself waiting for the shoe to drop versus working toward resolution. My ability to step outside of a situation and look at things more objectively was completely destroyed. My family was living in a bubble, trapped by the tension stemming from sibling rivalries, and I couldn’t see a way out.


Time heals all wounds. We’ve likely heard it our whole lives. And, many of us practically live that out, believing that some indiscriminate passing of time alone will somehow make hurts less hurtful, that progress will be made simply by passing days. Right or wrong, we may be able to get away with that in our own lives. But, when it comes to our kids, to our families, to our marriages, things are a lot more complicated.

Most of us enter into adoption expecting things to be hard at first. We read the books, read the blogs, finished the trainings. We’re all about hard things. I know mamas who have dug their heels in ready to face all those hard things head on. Those passionate mamas rock at it too. But, sometimes, they find themselves and their children and their marriages in a place they didn’t think they would – six months later, a year or two later, or years in when the hope they had that things would get better or the pain would somehow dull over time now seems more like defeat.

But, there is hope — not that time will do the healing but that there is healing. We just need to pause and take time to pursue it.


I made the call one windy afternoon in January. I paced outside as I dialed the number, my nerves on high alert, knowing that this was a bigger deal than I could imagine. I knew it was time. We needed help. The conflicts needed to be addressed, and it was something that couldn’t be helped by the passing of more time.

I had called our agency post-adoption department months earlier but left that conversation feeling discouraged; their suggestions for counselors were all far away. We’d have to travel to see them in an office. My heart knew that scenario wouldn’t be the best for our family. Our issues were in our house. We needed someone here. I felt alone. It just didn’t seem possible. Until, one day, I heard someone talking about her family’s therapy experience. A light went on in my heart, a flicker of hope, a feeling I wasn’t sure was possible any more. The nonprofit agency working with my friend also had a branch in my own city. My friend, knowing from our conversations how much we needed this, texted the contact information of a counselor near us, and I called.

That first conversation was a blur, but it was also an exhale. Unlike the passing of our first anniversary home, this exhale felt real. I knew that the person on the other end of the conversation was exactly who we needed to help our family.


An initial appointment really isn’t an initial; it’s just our first meeting. Each family’s start in receiving help for healing really is whatever first step they take — an email conversation that starts with asking a few questions about costs or availability, a phone call in a rare moment of quiet that may start all business and turn into tears.

Those intentional first steps — whatever they are — are powerful in and of themselves. It’s in that first step that you confess that you are not simply content with staying on the track you’re on, that you want something more for your family. And, that, dear sister, is no small thing. That simple act is no simple act. Writing that first email, making that first call, clicking “submit” on an online form takes a lot of courage, requiring not only a willingness to upset your daily routine and potentially your budget but also a great deal of humility. That first step in and of itself is a step toward healing.


Our first meeting was just my husband and me and our therapist. We planned it for a time when our children were in school so we could focus on what he had to say. Our therapist encouraged us to speak freely and asked us questions to find out what exactly we felt we needed. He listened to us, affirmed our emotions regarding the toughness of the situations we described, and encouraged us about the future. We left that first conversation confident that we knew which direction we were headed. We set goals we wanted to meet and planned our second session.

The key points we felt good about were:

1. Sessions would take place in our own home.

2. One or both parents would always be present.

3. Sessions would include general training, including videos for me and my husband to watch, but also be specifically catered toward our specific family needs.

4. We’d work out approaches congruent with those of TBRI. We’re familiar with these already and know these methods have been used successfully with many other adoptive families walking through trauma. We trust them.

We could speak freely about our religious beliefs and how our worldview affects how we parent. It was important to us to be able to feel like we could be open about sharing our personal histories as well as our faith with our therapist. Our faith, after all, is a defining factor in our family, and to leave it out of our healing process would have felt wrong.


Three hours. That’s how much time we allow for our first time together. It sounds daunting. Three hours? That’s a long time. We may not use it all, but we don’t want any time pressure. We don’t want a mom or dad to feel like they need to stop sharing because there’s someone waiting at the door.

This is your time. We invite parents to start wherever they want to start, and we ask a whole lot of questions about things we read on the forms they filled out ahead of time and about lots of other things. We aren’t trying to figure anything out; that’s not the point. We just want to hear you and give you permission and a safe place to be vulnerable and share what has led you to right now. We want you to have a chance to get to know us a little bit too and learn about what our process looks like because every practice does things a little differently. Having a plan spelled out helps in a lot of ways. You aren’t locked in; you can still decide that you want to go another route; that would be okay. And, if you decide you do want to go forward, you can have confidence that you know the direction we’re heading. And, that’s a good thing.

There’s a lot we do to come alongside families. As I explain all that, I always make sure to spell out a few hallmarks that may be different from others. We see a child with a parent or both parents present so that we use every opportunity to encourage relationship. After all, your child doesn’t want me; deep down, even if she isn’t sending you that message, she wants you to be her best resource. We will schedule times together for just the parents because your child’s history isn’t the only history that matters. We will go back together so that we can go forward, helping you to navigate and process hard stories with your child as well as hard todays. We talk about structure and nurture, how both are needed and how we will work out tools and strategies for your toolbox that address challenging behavior and communicate the messages to your child that you ultimately want to send. We always make sure we share that this isn’t a forever thing. It’ll be a lot of work, but the goal is to come alongside you until you are at a place you don’t feel like biweekly times together are needed and those times can become further and further apart until maybe you are just checking in every so often. We believe in you and want you to get to a place where you believe in you too.


We are now four sessions into our therapy, and the only regret I have is that we didn’t do this sooner. Therapy is something many families feel uncomfortable pursuing, almost as if it is admitting defeat. And you know what? It kind of is. We had to confess that alone, we could not do this. We had to admit that our village needed to include another person with the wisdom to look inside our bubble, see how we could make things work better, and help implement ways to do so. It’s a big step; a huge step, really.

If you are in this place, if you think you may need to find help for your family, find it. Reach out to those around you, call the post-adoption social worker at your adoption agency. Find a resource you trust who makes you feel somehow at peace in the midst of the chaos, and run with it. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Hope used to feel like something made of dreams I didn’t have the energy to pursue anymore. Now? Now, it’s concrete. Hope is knowing that we still have really tough moments, but we are doing something to help everyone in our family work through them with grace and understanding.

It’s a good place to be.

9 responses to “Family Therapy: The Beginning”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is so true. First, that seeking therapy is hard…we felt like we had failed, when we just needed some help, love alone could not solve these problems. Second, that once you start, you ask yourself why didn’t I do this sooner! We keep in touch with our therapist, and don’t go regularly anymore (at her suggestion) but it is such a comfort to me to know that she is there as my kids (now 8 and 10 years post adoption) have a loving, trained adult they trust as they go through puberty and face the challenges of middle school and high school. Family therapy saved our family, and we did not go until I realized that the conflicts were so bad I could not imagine going on a weekend vacation away with my kids because it was so stressful, and now we love nothing more than hanging out together.

  2. Mary says:

    All the feels!! This was us too! We are almost at the end of our TBRI sessions and I’m really sad. It has helped our family soo much!! Wish we would’ve known about it from the beginning too. I think it’s a resource that agencies should tell families about. Thankfully we had friends who had already walked this path and could help us get what we needed.❤

  3. L. B. says:

    It’s so wonderful to get help..we lived unimaginable hell with our first adopted child. But, we never got help because bad as it was..we really didn’t need it. Our family and marriage were pretty solid and close knit before the addition of our child.
    We as a family, are emotional and nurturers by nature that we took everything our child did and blamed ourselves for our child not getting better. Not only did our child reek havoc on us..but our child also caused much of our extended family to badly unravel too. We as a family ended up doing day long talk sessions for nearly a year ourselves. We never used a therapist though. We did it ourselves. This helped us guide ourselves out of the fog our child put us in and we our doing so exceptionally well now, but our child with even major assistance, from us and more professionals then I can count, still is stuck exactly where she has been at for the last four years. We’ve had to realize that sadly, our child isn’t going to get fully better. Too much happened to her and the happy ending we had so wanted for her and us will never be the case…but it took us a long time and a lot of talking, to accept that. Extended family also had to accept the same. They too were traumatized beyond belief. All of us know now, after two more adoptions that have gone incredibly well, that the first adoption was worst case scenario. We went through a hard time because we optimistically tried so hard to reach our child we nearly lost ourselves. While I don’t think the majority of adoptive families walk this severe of a road, where the child truly can’t be helped much..there are cases where it is reality. Our child does well here overall, but has never truly wanted any of us. We still try and hope and pray, but we are healthy today because we refuse to live in the world she has put herself in. Her trauma is deep and permanent..the effects of institutionalization has profoundly hurt her. We love her SO much, but as strong as we are and as much as we have worked with her, sometimes love, counseling, will just never be enough. Thankfully, the majority of people suffering will find help and therapy is such a wonderful resource and helps so many. For us, sadly, counseling wouldn’t have helped. As a family, we knew we needed to hash out the trauma we were experiencing/living in our home, with each other, daily..often..and all day sometimes. It was a LONG process but one we were determined to walk through with each other. Through our talks that went on forever, we became even a stronger family unit then before which has been so amazing. I would now tell other families going through do what’s right for your family. While getting counseling for most families would be so beneficial and life changing, looking back would not have worked for us. Having a few times a week to talk wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough. We were so traumatized by our child’s severe disabilities and beyond strange behaviors, that we needed to talk She would go to bed at night or take a nap and our family would pile into one room and begin the healing process. We would go into that room and not come out for hours. Everyone of us, needed that time and it worked!!! But, every single family is different. I feel like it’s important to know what works for your family and pursue the options that are right for you. For us, we honestly just needed each other, and to grieve. Not much more was needed to heal. But for others, only professional therapy will be key into healing..and for others,,a support group, etc. It’s really up to each individual family, what they need and to seek out the method and/or methods that will help. Everyone is different, but I pray for hope for anyone struggling out there. It is possible to be hopeful again, even if things turn out way differently then you thought. God is in control and I believe that and I am so incredibly blessed to put my trust in him and watch him give me beauty for ashes. 🙂

    • Whitney says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this. You are so right… the healing process looks different for everyone, for sure. Therapy, counseling, prayer, support groups, or just walking it out intentionally on your own… you definitely need to know what fits your family! Our sweet children go through SO much before we get them, and when we say “yes”, we say yes to all of them, even the hard stuff. Sounds like your first “yes” was a beautiful one, even if it’s not the story you thought it would be at the start. I so appreciate your sharing this.

      • L.B. says:

        Actually sadly, our first adoption has turned out totally different then expected and not in a good way. Our child has done as well as we can hope because we have invested so much into her but… likely won’t ever be enough. We are looking at lifetime care and a child who will be mentally an infant, maybe a toddler with the strength of the age she is..with many other kids in the home and time’s not going to be good situation for our family. We love her, but we realize we may not be looking at forever with her and we’ve had to accept that.:( But, we try hard and love her while she is still with us and pray for a miracle. In the end, we have done a lot to help her. Eventually, though it will be time to think about the other kids and their lives and safety. When families sign up for adoption they go into it knowing what they can and can not handle..our first agency pressured us to say yes to our child’s file and we felt we didn’t have a choice. On Gotcha Day we knew we should have said no even despite the consequences at that agency when back home, as we were now were faced with an awful scenario of do we proceed or not. But, we couldn’t just leave without her knowing the condition she was in, so we proceeded, no matter what happened once home..she needed out of there. So still we try and try, but knowing the outcome ultimately will never be what we hoped. But..she has a chance now irregardless and that’s what is most important. But I caution other families to listen to your gut and don’t be pressured, you not your agency know YOUR family best so only say yes when it’s a true yes. But despite all our pain, we are stronger now, we took time for our family, did what was right for us today and no matter what tomorrow holds..we will survive. Refining fire is what I call it and the many lessons we have learned from our girl and while I wouldn’t wish this on anybody..our lives and minds have stretched beyond limits we previously much in fact, we now view life completely different. And..we are looking at some major changes in the future to reflect our growth and well, that is in exciting. So, no matter the outcome..know God works all out for his glory. The future may look one way but God can turn it all around. 🙂

  4. S.M. says:

    It’s helpful to know we aren’t struggling alone! Our child has been defiant since we met him. We’re now almost a year in, having been faithfully doing TBRI methods, with attachment results but not aggression/defiance. I went to see a family therapist and walked out feeling discouraged; she didn’t listen to what I was saying we were doing at home and told me I needed to do TBRI with him because he has an attachment problem (she hasn’t met him). So we’re left scratching our heads why TBRI has helped with attachment (he really does seem to love us and feel decently secure) but not with aggression. He has a neurological condition and I’m wondering if there’s something connected there instead of an attachment problem (his behavior matches ODD). Any advice for a family who has reached out for help, but seem to be hitting dead ends?

    • Whitney says:

      Hey there, I’d love to chat more with you, and potentially connect you with another mama who is walking a hard path with defiance, aggression, and RAD. It is SO hard. Thank you for sharing this. If you want to talk more, I am totally up for it, just email me at .

    • Karen says:

      We just saw a psychologist for a neuropsych/educational evaluation and will be seeing a psychiatrist this month…just trying to figure out how this child’s brain works! Therapy has been hugely helpful to us but didn’t solve the aggression angle… (ADHD, ODD, to start with, now looking at more…)

      • kristi wright says:

        We did neuro-feedback with our ODD, ADHD child (who also did have attachment issues, even though he came to us at 10 DAYS old, foster placement) and had great results. Less tantrums and aggression all around nicer child. Good Luck.

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