Q: Tell us about your work as a clinical social worker.
A: I’ve spent most of my professional career working with youth who have been impacted by developmental trauma and relational trauma. I was always drawn towards working with children because I felt that if I could support children and their parents, then I could mitigate a lot of other challenges down the road.
After graduating from Smith College School for Social Work with a master’s in social work in 2001, I started off working in a shelter program with kids who were removed by Child Protective Services. We had 18 kids (6 month-olds to 12-year olds) who lived in the shelter program 24/7. The amount of profound trauma, loss, pain, and neglect that these kids were dealing with pulled at my heart in such profound way, that I wanted to learn more about how to support them. That started my pursuit of exploring trauma-informed treatment interventions.
I took a trauma-informed yoga training and learned how to integrate trauma-informed yoga into clinical practice. Then I saw the Trauma Center [in Brookline, Massachusetts] was hiring for child clinicians. I applied, and over the course of eight years, served in a variety of roles there including: intake coordinator, clinician, supervisor, and clinical director. During my tenure at the Trauma Center, I had the opportunity to work with people across the lifespan, provide consultation, and train other therapists. I also joined a child study team and helped develop Sensory Motor Arousal Regulation Treatment (SMART), a type of mental health therapy for children and teens who have experienced complex trauma.
In addition to working with kids who have experienced complex trauma, I work with kids with depression, anxiety, and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); kids working through challenges involving their sexuality; kids who identify as gender non-conforming; families with gender non-conforming backgrounds; and adoptive families. I believe it is important to engage in a thorough assessment process to determine what approach will be the right fit for a particular child or family. I am trained in the following modalities and weave them into my treatment planning as clinically indicated: SMART, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and the Attachment, Regulation and Competency (ARC) Framework.
When assessing how best to support kids and families, I generally begin by trying to understand how effectively children are able to regulate the energy in their bodies. If this is a challenge, I typically start with a body-based approach, but I also weave in symbolic play therapy and cognitive interventions, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), when a child is regulated enough to benefit from them.
In addition to working at Intuition Wellness Center with kids, I maintain a Telehealth private practice for adults. I’m licensed in Arizona and Massachusetts. I am also a partner at SMARTmoves, LLC. I provide SMART consultations and lead SMART trainings nationally and internationally.
Q: What made you choose this path?
A: As an undergraduate I wanted to be a journalism major at first. I wanted to be able to hear people’s stories and help people feel understood in a meaningful way. As I continued in my studies, I realized that’s not what people are looking for in journalism, and I took a psychology class and loved it. I found understanding humans and human nature lit me up inside. I wound up going into social work because I was very drawn to the idea that humans develop in the context of their social experiences, community, family, and culture. I graduated college and went right into graduate school.
Q: What is Sensory Motor Arousal Regulation Treatment (SMART) all about?
A: SMART was developed to treat children and adolescents who have experienced complex trauma, for whom regulation of emotions, behavior, and interpersonal interactions is a primary problem. The goal of this treatment approach is to expand children’s and families’ repertoire of regulating experiences, with the aim of nurturing healing and growth. SMART offers an array of full body strategies and integrates multi-sensory tools, such as large cushions, balance beams, and yoga balls, into treatment to facilitate improved regulation, support integrated trauma processing, and promote strong relationships.
SMART allows children and their parents to connect by moving together and engaging in playful, rhythmic games. This approach is particularly helpful when children struggle to talk about what is bothering them or become overwhelmed when their parents ask them questions about their feelings or experience.
Parents often say they try to teach their child a lot of skills or tools, but their child doesn’t use them when they’re overwhelmed. SMART provides a framework in which that can make a lot of sense and helps families know what to do when their child is struggling to access resources.
A child doesn’t use their skills or tools because they’re lazy or unwilling. They just don’t have access to particular parts of their brain at that moment. SMART therapists understand the developmental trajectory of children and what happens when the brain gets overwhelmed. SMART provides new inroads to families when they’ve tried a lot of other things that have been ineffective.
Q: What guiding principles inform your work?
A: So much of what I do is rooted in the understanding that people have the wisdom in them to heal, but that without the right support or environment, healing gets derailed. The combination of evidence-informed treatment interventions and the client’s wisdom helps promote growth and healing.
Today’s parents face a lot of challenges, and I want parents to know that it’s okay to have a wide range of feelings about their child, and it doesn’t mean that they’re bad parents. I hope that parents can feel comfortable being really honest about the complicated feelings that can come up when raising children. When we are deeply attached and love someone, it’s natural to experience a wide range of emotions, and it’s okay to be honest about that.
Additionally, I love helping parents, teachers, and people in the community learn to view a child’s behavior as the child’s best attempt to regulate and adapt to their environment, rather than as something that needs to be stopped. When we can shift our alignment with the child in this way, it can make a huge difference in the child’s felt sense of safety and help them start to feel safe in relationships and get curious about themselves and their own bodies.
Q: What will our first session together be like?
A: I generally complete two intake sessions. During the first intake I meet just with parents and/or caregivers. The first intake is an opportunity for me to learn about the child, their challenges, strengths, and needs, and the parents’ hopes for their child. I invite parents to imagine themselves in their last therapy session, feeling really glad that they brought their child to therapy. Then I ask, “What would be different about your lives and your family then?”
During the first intake, I also like to orient parents to the SMART space, explain what it means to do embodied treatment and ‘work from the bottom-up,’ and help them understand the way that I work. Parents are welcome to ask lots of questions to really understand me and my approach. For treatment to be effective, it is important that the approach feels like a good fit to the family.
As I talk with parents, I ask them to tell me what they think I am really going to appreciate about their child as I get to know them. I see parents as the experts of their children, I am an expert on mental health, and together as a team we facilitate an environment in which their child can heal and thrive. I want that to be the framework of our first session.
I begin the second intake by letting the child know that the treatment space is a place where they can move about, explore, discover what they like or do not like, and notice what helps them feel energized or calm in their body. My overall approach is child-centered, with an emphasis on ensuring the child feels safe and understood. I am genuinely curious to learn about the child’s interests and strengths. Identifying a child’s interests and strengths helps us develop an individualized treatment approach that will feel fun and engaging to the child.
Q: What happens in ongoing sessions?
A: I like to begin therapy sessions by noticing energy levels or emotions or by checking in about a challenge the child has been facing. I may ask the child how big or small the challenge was during the week or how big or small the challenge feels in the present moment. If the child would like to talk about it, they are welcome to do so. If it’s too hard to talk about, we sit with some of the hard feelings they notice, figure out something in the room that might help make that ‘hard’ a little easier to bear, and engage in embodied play. I always emphasize that the child’s feelings matter, and my job is to help them learn how to take care of their hard feelings and listen to their hard feelings so they can let others know what they need.
Oftentimes the playing we do in session is led by the child and based on what they gravitate towards. I invite the child to explore what they are really curious about. If they are shut down, and I know there’s something they really like, I might invite them to explore a couple of options. I use very invitational language. It’s not an expectation that they play with what I suggest.
Depending on how long that takes I might check back in and see if they want to figure out or problem-solve a challenge that was hard. If not, they might really just need to focus on regulation and tending to the hard feeling. I might bring in the parent, if they are not already in the session, to share a little bit about what we did and what was helpful. If the child wants, they can share anything about what they liked or didn’t like, and we’ll make a plan for anything they can carry out into the week.
Q: What do you find rewarding about your work?
A: I just love getting to know people. I’m very curious about people and feel very honored to be a part of people’s journey toward healing. It is a true privilege when another person lets you into their life and shares their story with you, and it is so powerful when you work together in the therapeutic relationship to help bring about the change they wish to see.
I love playing with kids. I do a lot of embodied play and dramatic play, and I find that joyful, even when things are hard. I love the spontaneity, honesty, and the ‘thinking on your feet’ that children bring. I love when families feel like you are on their team. Sometimes when kids struggle, they feel alone and isolated, and I like to let them know that they’re not alone.
I don’t come to this approach with a protocol of how therapy should go. I like bringing a clinical framework to what I’m doing and having lots of room for curiosity, playfulness, and creativity. I try to follow the child’s lead with enough curiosity that I can ‘catch’ a moment and see what kind of unexpected wisdom might blossom from that moment. That’s what I love about this work.
Q. What are some questions you wish parents would ask?
A: “How might my child’s struggles or behaviors make sense in the context of their unique experience?”
“How can we partner together to get to know my child for the unique person they are?”
“What’s the best way to support this child?”
Q: If you couldn’t practice therapy, what would you do instead?
A: I’m drawn towards teaching, and as a hobby, I love photography because I get to try to capture a particular experience in a particular moment. Therapy is like that too. You experience some really powerful moments that stick with you in a way that is transformative. These moments invoke a lot of feeling, and I think photography invokes the same sort of feeling for me.
Q. How do you practice self-care?
A. Having a team of supportive colleagues is always essential. We can’t do it alone and we all need support… whether that’s through supervision, consultation, or just connecting with colleagues. I think that’s really important.
I am very creative and I like to be silly and have fun. Sometimes I like planning a game night with friends, or getting out into nature and going for hikes. Nature is incredibly healing and restorative.
Reminding myself to be compassionate and gentle towards myself when I’m tired or overwhelmed is also important, as well as giving myself permission to accept help from others.
Q: What makes you unique as a therapist?
A: I don’t know if I am unique, but I think I ‘get’ kids. I can really relate to them in an authentic, playful way. I don’t have a lot of shame. I am happy to roll around on the floor, happy to be silly and goofy, and happy to do whatever I can to get into the child’s world in a way that’s relatable to them. And I like that. It’s fun and enjoyable for me.
I’ve done this for a long time. I have a lot of training, expertise, and experience. I can draw upon the research and knowledge base and really support parents in feeling held while also kind of just letting it all go so I can be present and attuned to parents with their kids.
Q: What advice or suggestions would you give to students who are considering becoming therapists?
A: It’s a journey. Be patient with yourself… Somebody once told me that it takes at least 10 years to make a competent therapist, and I think that is true.
Bringing your curiosity is the most important thing in the relationship. Put aside what you think should be and really try to step into the world of another and understand. That is essential.
Never, never stop learning. We are always learning. There’s so much to learn and so many different ways to apply what you’ve learned. Having this mindset will ‘fill your bucket.’
Q: What thought or idea inspires you to reach your fullest potential in life?
A: Ram Dass, [an American spiritual teacher, writer, and psychologist], once said, “We are all just walking each other home.” As we were sitting here talking, it came to me that we come from so many different paths with so many different beliefs but really, at the end of the day, we are humans that are put here to be with each other, to care for each other, to support each other, to know each other, to love each other… and we are all just trying to help each other get through this life. I guess there’s something in that that’s really profound, touching, settling, and grounding to me. Even in our differences, our path is really just walking each other home.
Want more info? Visit the bio page of Heather Finn, LCSW, Child and Family Therapist and learn more about her specialties! At Intuition Wellness Center, we specialize in health and wellness services for children, young adults, and their families. If you think you would like some extra support, we’re here for you.