I was a new mom, sleep-deprived, showers were a treat, and every minute of my day was consumed with trying to meet the many needs of my newly adopted daughter. Everything was so new compared to her home in India. She needed to eat six or more times a day due to malnutrition and low weight and she was unable to hold a spoon or sit in a high chair. I was obsessed with measurements and calories. She couldn’t speak or communicate at all and I was unsure she even knew I was her mom. Transitioning from an orphanage to a family caused many emotional, sensory, mental, and spiritual issues that needed love and time to heal.
I was exhausted and felt like a terrible mom. I wasn’t a bad mom. I was doing everything I knew but my daughter needed more than my husband and I could give. That was hard to accept but has freed me to be the best mom. Asking for help and getting help was a game-changer. For us, therapy was that extra help, love, and support we needed to parent our beautiful child.
When we first met with the occupational therapist she looked me right in the eyes and said I was a good mom. I took what seemed like my first deep breath in months. Someone, a professional, thought that I was a good mom. These weekly sessions of therapy would help me be a better mom and help my child thrive in a world that is often too busy, too loud, and very frightening to her.
My daughter is not broken, or disabled, or needing to be repaired! She is different and that is one of the reasons she is so wonderful. She currently has four therapies with therapists in different fields and they love her and support her in living her best life despite some of the challenges and delays. They see her as a person who needs healing and hope and a little extra help.
I will break down some typical therapies as well as mention some other therapies parents may be unaware of that may be useful. Though the process can seem overwhelming, it is actually easy when parents know how to navigate the process.
Remember, Children do not need to have special needs, learning difficulties, or even medical diagnoses to benefit from therapy. Any child who experiences trauma could benefit. Any child who is struggling to meet age-appropriate milestones can benefit. Children suffering from anxiety or depression or other mental health issues could all benefit from one or more therapies that are mentioned here.
Getting Started With Therapy:
There is no shame in looking into therapy for your child. Check out “Should My Child Go To Therapy” on Adoption.com when deciding if therapy is necessary for your child. The first step is talking to the child’s pediatrician. Look through the therapies on this list and check out the resources linked before going to that appointment. The doctor may not want to make a referral for therapy but a parent can advocate for it.
The next step is to find a great therapy clinic. The pediatrician may recommend one but there are also many reviews online to find a great clinic. If the child is referred for more than one therapy, finding a clinic that provides all those services is important.
The child will then be evaluated at the clinic for therapy and given a recommendation for how often and how long the therapy should take place. The parents are a part of all the goals made at this evaluation and what therapy will look like for your child. Parents also have the power to switch therapists at any time.
Then the clinic will schedule the child’s therapies and have the same time each week. If there are multiple therapies, they will try to put them back to back. For example, my daughter has speech therapy and occupational therapy back to back so we don’t have to drive into the clinic two separate times during the week.
Remember, some therapies are provided through a child’s school so check with the school counselor or psychologists for more details.
Speech Therapy (SPL):
According to Medicine.net speech therapy is defined as “The treatment of speech and communication disorders. The approach used varies depending on the disorder. It may include physical exercises to strengthen the muscles used in speech (oral-motor work), speech drills to improve clarity, or sound production practice to improve articulation.”
If a child is not speaking or having trouble communicating or even having physical difficulty with speaking, this therapy can be life-changing. Through play and often games the speech-language pathologist helps the child overcome issues with speech. Many speech-language pathologists know sign language and use it as a tool to help children communicate.
Speech therapy is also a great place to try out different devices and tools before purchasing them at home. These tools are called augmented and alternative communication devices (ACC). There is a company called PRC that makes and distributes these devices and describes ACC as, “a term that’s used to describe various methods of communication that can help people who are unable to use verbal speech to communicate. AAC methods vary and may be personalized to meet each individual’s needs.”
Some examples of ACC devices may be iPads or tablets that have applications that help individuals communicate. There are eye-tracking cameras and computers that allow paralyzed people to communicate without the ability to move limbs. There are many models of handheld devices that allow a word or several words to be paired with the pictures on the device so a person can push a button and the word is said aloud. There are dozens of devices to try and the speech-language pathologist is trained on how to use them.
Another aspect of speech therapy is the ideas. Many parents struggle to think of fun engaging things to do at home that encourage speech. I would search the internet for ideas, my daughter would play for one minute, and then throw the activity across the room and move on. Two hours of internet research for one minute of fun. Let’s just say it wasn’t fun for me. From identifying shapes and colors to learning how to encourage vocalizations, to games and handouts sent home every week, we never ran out of speech activities to encourage our daughter to communicate.
The speech-language pathologist, and other therapists as well, are third-party professionals who praise the successes and encourage change in areas of failure. Let’s face it; parents cannot be everything all the time for their child and we make mistakes. The therapist is specifically trained and has tests that have been developed over years of research and development. They are trained to notice what a child may or may not be receiving at home. I know our therapists always gave us ideas on what we could do better and simply told us to be patient and make learning fun and the words would come.
Occupational Therapy (OT)
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapy is defined as “The only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations). Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent—or live better with—injury, illness, or disability.”
For children, their occupation is learning how to navigate and live their everyday lives. Our occupational therapist described a child’s job or occupation as play and though it is hard to believe, some children have to be taught how to play. Sometimes delays, injuries, or other factors can make it difficult for a child to do daily activities like dressing or feeding themselves. They may struggle to take turns or play with other children. An occupational therapist can even help with poor motor skills and handwriting. If I child needs a little or a lot of extra help to do their daily occupations they can benefit from occupational therapy.
Another major part of occupational therapy is helping children with sensory issues like sensory aversion or sensory seeking. Certain disorders can cause children to have sensory sensitivity to lights, sounds, textures, and more.
Many adopted children deal with sensory issues—especially children adopted internationally. There is no one reason why this is the case but typically a child will come from a simple orphanage with white walls and very few toys and they are handed over to a new family with new smells and they travel across the world and end up in a home with colorful walls, art and pictures all over, and dozens of toys. Even that sentence is overwhelming! Many children are overwhelmed and shut down or act out to cope with the sudden change.
While it is not always the case for all international adoptees to deal with sensory issues, it is very true for my daughter. She is a sensory seeker meaning she craves input of all kinds. She likes music to be played. She enjoys a deep pressure hug. She likes bright lights. My theory is that she craves input because she was often deprived of these senses in her orphanage. Sometimes children are sensory avoiders and they can’t eat certain foods or they are made uncomfortable by loud sounds and bright lights. Strong smells can upset them.
Some sensory issues are so severe the child cannot be in public often or at all. Their world becomes very small and this is a sad reality for many families.
This is where occupational therapy comes in and, for many children, literally saves the day. They create a fun and safe environment for children to be challenged and grow. They have years of training and research to back up their methods.
Physical Therapy (PT)
Many people are familiar with physical therapy or PT because it is more common. Many adults need physical therapy after a surgery or injury. For children, this therapy is a bit different. Visit this fact sheet, “The ABCs of Pediatric Physical Therapy,” it is a great resource.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, Pediatric Physical therapists, “…work with children and their families to assist each child in reaching their maximum potential to function independently and to promote active participation in home, school, and community environments.” How pediatric physical therapy is different is that there is a focus on development. Children need to be treated differently than adults. Pediatric physical therapists have to be knowledgeable in what milestones are appropriate for the developmental stages of the children they work with.
While physical therapy and occupational therapy seem similar, they focus on different tasks for a child. The physical therapist works on gross motor skills and makes sure the body as a whole is functioning properly. An occupational therapist focuses on fine motor skills.
The physical therapist designs fun games and tasks for the child that will exercise their body and help achieve their physical goals. The therapist can send home exercises to work on at home and will inform the parents if a child’s movement is damaging. For example, my daughter would sit in what is called a W pose. The physical therapist explained that the pose is bad for building core strength and can cause issues for the child later on. We worked on better ways to sit on the ground.
My daughter loves her therapies because her therapists know how to make learning and challenging tasks fun. They challenge her and take a lot of time to get to know her and meet her needs. Whether a child needs one therapy or multiple, it can be beneficial to get started.
While speech, occupational, and therapy are the most common therapies for young children there are also many others that are lesser-known. I won’t go into the details of these therapies but a pediatrician can help you know if these are right for your child.
The associated therapy of play explains it this way, “Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem-solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others. Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development..”
You can learn more about Aquatic Therapy on Wikipedia.. When informing on this topic they explain, “Aquatic therapy refers to treatments and exercises performed in water for relaxation, fitness, physical rehabilitation, and other therapeutic benefits. Typically a qualified aquatic therapist gives constant attendance to a person receiving treatment in a heated therapy pool.”
According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is the clinical & evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”
Kidshealth.org simply describes talk therapy in this way, “As Many children and teens have problems that affect how they feel, act, or learn. Therapy is a type of treatment for these problems. It is a way to get help for your child. In therapy, kids talk and learn how to work out their problems. Going to therapy helps them cope better, communicate better, and do better.”
Therapy can be beneficial, life-changing, and worth every minute! My child has grown and changed and thrived because of her caring therapists and all those precious moments and wins in therapy.
Natalie Welch is a co-creator of the InstaMommas, a Christain podcast/blog that is all about motherhood and adoption. She is happily married and a mother through international adoption to her 4-year-old daughter. Natalie graduated with a BS in Secondary Education in English with an emphasis in English as a New Language and Spanish Language studies from the University of Idaho. Natalie was a teacher for many years and now loves being a stay-at-home mom. Natalie enjoys traveling the world, creating or listening to music, reading long novels, and continuing her education. Currently, Natalie is learning American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate better with her daughter who has special needs. Natalie loves to take long walks with her family and explore the beautiful state of Idaho she has called home for the last ten years. Natalie has a passion for adoption and loves to share hope and healing through her writing.