Patience, Receptiveness and Cookies: Connecting with Traumatized Kids

It was 1995, and we had just started A Home Within. Seven-year-old Kelsey was one of the first foster children referred for open-ended therapy, but she was NOT happy about it.

She routinely and loudly told her therapist, Dr. B, that he was dumb and didn’t understand anything at all about kids. She didn’t like his toys and didn’t want to play any of his games. Mostly, she announced that she didn’t understand why he didn’t have snacks, which was for her the clearest evidence that he was stupid.

Dr. B, a young therapist at that time, turned to his consultation group for help. He told the group that, despite Kelsey’s continuing disparagement of him, he admired her spunk and noticed that her complaints did demonstrate that she was really paying attention to him and the office. He liked this little girl and wanted to find a way to make her more comfortable.

The consultation group leader suggested that Kelsey was telling him exactly what she needed: snacks. She was hungry for relationships, but she first needed the concrete reassurance of his care that actual food would provide.

Like many traumatized children, Kelsey had little reason to trust that adults would care for her. She had been moved from one foster home to another. Dr. B was just one more in a series of adults who came into her life. She had no reason to believe that he would be different—that he would stick around.

Much to Kelsey’s delight, Dr. B, heeding her pleas and the advice of his consultation group, began bringing a cookie for each of them to therapy. Kelsey loved starting her sessions with these weekly tea parties. One day, several months after they had begun meeting, as she nibbled on her cookie, Kelsey happily looked at Dr. B and asked, “How long can I come here?”

African American father and daughter playing teaRemembering that we promised children therapy “for as long as it takes,” he responded, “Well, for as long as you want.”

Kelsey continued, “Can I come when I’m in middle school?” “Yes,” Dr. B replied. “What about when I’m in high school?” Yes, he reassured her. “When I’m grown up and have kids, can I bring them to see you?” With a bit of wonder about what he had signed on for, Dr. B answered, “Yes, you can bring your children to see me.”

Early in 2015 we got a call from Dr. B, who long ago had finished therapy with Kelsey, or so he thought. But she remembered his promise and when her daughter, now about seven, was having trouble, she sought him out.

In the intervening 20 years, Dr. B has shifted his practice and no longer works with children. That, along with Kelsey’s move to a community a considerable distance from San Francisco, makes it impractical for Dr. B to see Kelsey’s daughter in long-term therapy. However, he is working with Kelsey and with the office of A Home Within to keep his promise that he will be available to her “for as long as it takes.”

He is committed to helping Kelsey find a therapist who will offer her daughter a lasting, caring relationship. He is equally determined to find one who will also have the good sense to know that, sometimes, good therapy begins with a tea party.

Toni Heineman is a clinical social worker and psychologist, and is the founder and executive director of A Home Within.

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Toni Heineman
About Toni Heineman 15 Articles
I am licensed as a Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Psychologist and serve on the Clinical Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF. I am the founder and Executive Director of A Home Within, and the author of numerous articles on identifying and meeting the emotional needs of children, youth, and young adults in foster care.