Therapy. This word may bring up many emotions. I know because this word brings so much up for me and my family. See, I earn my living as a clinician, my family is engaged in therapy due to trauma, and I have struggled with the question Is it okay to go to therapy?
When I decided to go dive into the adoption world, I thought I had a developed understanding of it all. I had been a protective social worker for years. I was in the trenches, seeing all the different sides of the triad. I embarked on my first adoption journey as a single mother. I was matched with a sibling group ages 5 and 6 years old. I believed that I had the answers to move my children from trauma to attachment in a smooth manner.
I know, I know, laugh away! I have over the years sat on my floor and, in between tears of joy or pain, have found humor in that way of thinking. Here’s what I didn’t realize then, but through experience: it’s okay to ask for help. Therapy is one way you can get the help you need. There are different types of therapy, and depending on where you fit in the adoption triad, you may have different needs.
Birth parents and family
The decision to place a child for adoption may come with a host of emotions. It may be hard to process with just anyone. Finding family and friends who can understand the complex emotions that have led to your decision and may linger will be hard. Each person in your life will have their own experience related to your experience. You may feel that once you have made the choice, there is no need to relive it. There may be other times your emotions become overwhelming. Remember that this process is related to grief. There is no right or wrong way to feel what you need to feel. That said, there may be times when you need help sorting out the complexity. You may wonder: Is it okay to go to therapy? You may also wonder when is the right time to seek help.
There are times when a child is placed for adoption but the birth parents didn’t have a say. This happens when child protection agencies have deemed the goal to be adoption. This will add even more emotions. The question of Is it okay to go to therapy? may come up because of guilt or other large emotions. Learning to cope with these emotions is key so that they don’t come out in other ways. There is always a concern around unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and drugs, when someone experiences an intense trauma. Also, there is isolation in times of trauma that can be unexpected. This can be either from ones you thought were your support or by pushing others away. If you find yourself having these feelings, it is okay to go to therapy. It can be helpful to have someone who is not biased or an intimate part of your story to help you understand yourself and the journey.
When you try to decide when therapy may be right for you or your family, it may take a process. I know for me, I thought because I wanted my children so much, I would find ways to help them. My love would show them who I was and that I was to be trusted. I quickly found that love was not enough. We began meeting with a therapist who specialized in attachment. This did wonders for our relationship and helped me process their grief with them. I also decided to see an individual therapist in order to understand my grief of what I thought adoption would look like. All of these emotions were complex but important to process.
Each family will have their unique journey regarding the question Is it okay to go to therapy? There may be multiple answers as each member of the family will experience their own journey. Also, what may work for one person may not be what is needed for the next person. My older adopted children found attachment therapy to be the most beneficial. My youngest child has used in-home therapy and behavioral services to address trauma responses.
I often feel that children are the ones who may ask Is it okay to go to therapy? They may feel obligated to be strong for their adoptive families or even their biological families. I know mine have expressed feeling pulled by all to “just handle it.” They have had many experiences (even if adopted at birth) that they can only relate to. There may be questions related to identity and family of origin. No two adoptions are the same, so it is unfair to judge whether one child needs additional support because another did not.
Children can show symptoms of their trauma in different ways than adults. It is important to understand what a trauma response looks like. You may have heard of fight, flight, or freeze. There is a fourth less-commonly talked about one, which is fawn. Fight is where when a person begins to experience an event that can cause internal conflict they may fight. My youngest child often gets this trauma response when hearing the word “no.” It is common for a child to express their feelings in an outward, aggressive manner. Some children may internalize their fear and feelings. We commonly see this in freeze. They may become withdrawn and even have thoughts of hurting themselves in extreme cases. Fight and freeze can happen to the same person at different times. Flight is when a person feels the need to get out of the situation they are in and run away. This can happen mentally or physically, depending on the person.
The last one which is not talked about as much is fawn or fawning. This is when a person feels they need to agree with others even though they do not want to do the thing asked. We see this a lot in children because of the adult/child dynamic. They want to please the adults in their life, but this can cause a lot of distress. The constant “yes” without being able to express their true needs can cause more harm to the relationship.
My middle daughter does this often, and later it all comes out in a verbally aggressive way. She found it hard to accept that therapy may help. We had to have a serious talk about whether it is okay to go to therapy. She felt the stigma around therapy and that she should be able to control what was happening to her. I finally made the decision for her, and it worked. She has been able to process her feelings in a healthy way. When I see her “yessing” me I call it out gently. She is now entering her senior year of high school and navigating the world. It is important for her to learn her strength and understand her trauma response.
Stigma around Mental Health
You don’t have to look far to find falsehoods about mental health and seeking help. It is concerning how media outlets portray adoption in movies and shows. I’m sure you can name a few yourself without much effort. The most common theme is that children will have intense attachment disorders and they will try to bring bodily harm to others—that these children are deviants with little to offer the world. This is simply NOT TRUE! There are of course children who have experienced intense trauma that need more help. There will always be people who need more care than others; this is not just isolated to the adoption community. Children and families may need professional help to adjust to their new way of living. This is not a failure, nor should it feel that way.
I know from personal experience how so many people made me feel that way. I have worked in the mental health field for 20 years and still needed to ask for help. Many thought I had answers that I just simply did not have because of my relationship with my children. I felt the stigma around needing to seek help and felt that if others knew, I would be less than a mom. There is an unspoken expectation within the adoption community, and in general, that adoptive parents must know it all. They are seeking out parenting intentionally, so whatever comes their way was what they asked for. Not true.
I remember venting about how hard it was to parent children of trauma and my family member snidely said, “Well, you asked for all of this. Be grateful.” It hurt me to hear these unsupportive words. Of course, this was the same family member that would frown and make comments when my children would have a trauma response.
Therapy itself can get a bad rap from those same outlets. I’m a clinician and I hear it every day where someone has been told that therapy is a hoax. How can just telling a stranger your feelings or secrets help in any way? It is scary to be vulnerable, scarier to have to look at yourself for your own happiness and truth. Some people can go through life without having to seek out help. They may have had healthy relationships that gave them amazing coping mechanisms. Others may use alternative substances to maintain their needs. When asking Is it okay to go to therapy? one must begin by considering these questions:
- Is what I’m experiencing causing me to become mentally or physically not okay?
- Is what I’m experiencing altering the way I want to live or making my life harder?
If you answer yes, it may be time to seek out a professional. It’s okay to put aside what you believe to be true and discover what is true for your family and yourself. This may feel scary but I can assure you the right therapeutic fit can make your relationship stronger. You can become stronger to handle all that life can bring to you.
What does therapy look like?
We briefly discussed a few types of therapy commonly known in the adoption world, such as attachment or trauma-related practices. There are many models, and finding the right professional is key. Some questions to ask may include:
- What theory are they trained in?
- How do they handle conflict during a session?
- Who will be the identified client, and how will other family members be able to interact?
- How long can this therapy be (sometimes insurance dictates how many sessions)?
- Are there co-pays?
During the recent pandemic, the world of remote therapy has begun. This has opened so many more options to families who had obstacles getting to in-person sessions. It is still encouraged to engage in therapy in person, especially with children. There are therapists that focus on play and others who use talk techniques. A child of trauma may find talking to be hard and the distraction of play therapy needed.
It is okay to start with a therapist and decide a different model is needed. The goal is to have clients grow and learn about themselves.
Sometimes it takes a while for a therapist to build trust and rapport with their client. We see this often working with children or individuals with severe trauma. I cannot stress the importance of allowing clients to build trust at their own pace. There may be a burning problem within the family that needs to be extinguished, such as physical aggression. There is no quick fix for trauma, and when done in a healthy way, the outcome will last. Change can and will happen
when the professional, family, and individual are on the same page. So, to answer Is it okay to go to therapy? I would say if you are asking this question, it may be time to seek professional help.Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.