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Healthy People interview: Robyn Spodek Schindler, MA, MS, LCAT, LPC, ATR-BC, NCC
Psychotherapist: Specializing in Mental Health, Art Therapy and Play Therapy
Paint the Stars Art Therapy, LLC, Morganville, NJ


November 5, 2014


Read Healthy:  What schooling did you need to accomplish to get where you are today, and what degrees and titles do you currently hold?

 

Robyn Spodek Schindler: In order to be a psychotherapist you must hold a Masters Degree in a related field such as Psychology, Mental Health Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy, Addictions, etc. Since I knew I wanted to specialize in Art Therapy, I pursued my Masters in Mental Health Counseling first since several states do not honor Art Therapy with a license. I also believed it would improve my own abilities as a therapist to have a stronger clinical background. I have my MS in Mental Health Counseling from Nova Southeastern University and after that I received an additional Masters (MA) in Clinical Art Therapy from Long Island University at CW Post.

 

My titles/licenses include: Licensed Creative Art Therapist (LCAT-this is a NY based license although NJ is presently working on an equivalent), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC in NJ), Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC; nationwide) and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). I refer to myself as a psychotherapist or counselor specializing in Art and Play therapies.

RH:  When did you know you wanted to be a psychologist? What about the field was appealing to you?

 

RS: Well like so many 18 year olds that go off to college, I had very different hopes and dreams. I wanted to be a pediatrician, for as long as I could remember. I always loved working with children and I really enjoyed science and medicine. However, pre-med classes and schedules became too much for me to bear and I dropped that as my major. I had no idea what I wanted to do! I did always find psychology interesting and one day my older sister recommended that I look into art therapy seeing how I was a fine arts student, had a passion for the arts and an interest in psychology. From there it was meant to be. Everything I researched about the field I immediately loved. I especially enjoyed the idea of helping kids and teens work through their issues by using art. Being that I was young at the time I discovered this field (around 20 years old) I could easily understand how some kids don’t want to talk or just take medication to feel better. This was that extra something that I knew I could offer.

RH: When did you know you wanted to focus on children’s’ mental health? Why was that the right path for you, as opposed to working with adults?

 

RS: I always, always loved working with children. From the moment I was a CIT (counselor in training) at summer camp at the age of 12, it was a connection I could not deny. From babysitting to various jobs where I worked with children of all ages, some with disabilities (physical and/or mental) it really was a calling for me, as cheesy as that may sound. I found that for me, professionally, I had an abundance of patience when working with this population as opposed to my lack of patience within the adult world. I also have always been a firm believer in doing something that you love and enjoy and that is how I feel when working with children and teens.

 

Art Therapy as a professional choice for me was easy; it just fit right into my life, like the missing puzzle piece. I had been creating my own art since I was 6 years old and it was a passion that has stayed with me even to this day. It is my go-to relaxing exercise, so why not teach other children that they can do the same? You mean I can be messy with paint and clay and help kids create as a way to cope and work through various issues? Yup, sign me up! As my husband likes to joke, “My wife finger paints for a living.” (He’s just jealous.)

RH: Were there environmental factors when you were growing up that you think influenced your career decisions?

 

RS: I have never really thought of how environmental factors may have influenced me but after hearing this question I would have to say yes. Part of what I loved learning about through all of my schooling was the many alternatives that exist as a way to help children and teens that does not include medication. I had so many friends growing up that were on various medications to help with one issue but that often brought on a whole new issue. Part of me always believed there had to be other options. The idea of not just using talk therapy but creating something with your hands and your mind was a revolutionary concept to me, especially knowing and seeing the downside of overmedicating.

RH: What types of issues and concerns do you help children and their families cope with? What age groups do you work with?

 

RS: I work with children as young as 3 and as old as 21. I do sometimes see little ones as young as 2 although I typically recommend not to start therapy that young because so much of what parents see often ends up being a result of their age and they grow right out of it. I see children and teens with various mental, emotional and behavioral issues. The majority of my clientele suffer from any of the following: Depression, Anxiety, Anger, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiance, Bipolar, Family issues (such as divorces, blended families, etc.), Behavioral issues (such as acting out in school and/or home, continuous tantrums), Psychotic Disorders, Developmental Delays including Autism Spectrum diagnoses, and more.

RH:  What does art therapy mean? What methods do you use, how does art complement psychotherapy, why is it a useful tool in working with children? What are the benefits of art therapy, and how does it help young people express themselves?

 

RS: Art Therapy can hold many different meanings especially since the Creative Arts Therapies include art, music, drama and dance! The following was taken directly off of the American Art Therapy Association homepage: Art Therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the Art Therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.


In my own words, when parents ask me, “Well, what is art therapy, exactly?” I say that art is whatever we create in a session as a way to work through and talk about anything that is on your child’s mind without actually having to speak. I will say that 9 out of 10 times the art in general helps kids to open up more and be more willing to speak about what is going on. Even the most introverted of children tend to forget where they are when they are painting or drawing and they begin to let their guard down. I consider myself more of a clinical art therapist because I often prefer to create directives, sort of like lesson plans for therapy, where I create a certain task for the child to answer through creativity that is related to whatever issues they may be going through. This type of directed task often compliments the idea of talk psychotherapy perfectly because it is created in a way that allows me to ask the right questions and hopefully receive important and relative information about my client.

 

Art Therapy as a profession has research showing that all age groups benefit from this type of therapy. For me, children in particular respond so well because art and play is how a child is taught to communicate from as early as infancy. From crib mobiles to Barbie dolls and action figures to a paint brush and some clay, if you have ever witnessed a child playing/creating you can see how they are communicating and creating a world in which they feel totally comfortable with the idea of communicating. That is the basis for everything that I do in session. Children are extremely perceptive; if they do not like something about you or feel that you are fishing for something, chances are they will close up and you will get nothing. The more welcoming you are, get down to their level, have fun, be silly, etc. the more they will relax and let you into their world.

 

The benefits of using art therapy are never ending. From the day I have started all the way through my current private practice I have seen children smile for the first time because of art therapy, I’ve seen them try new foods, I’ve listened to them talk about what was once unspeakable, I’ve heard them try and speak where there was once no voice! It fosters positive self-esteem and healthy body image, creates a place where anxiety does not exist, expresses tears and anger without hurting anyone else or feeling hurt themselves, etc.

 

RH: Can you share some (anonymous) examples of particular types of art projects or sessions that you have done with children, and how it has helped them through particular problems?

 

RS: I have used just about every modality that art has to offer. With several teens that I see I love using scrapbooking as a way to help them get to know themselves better, accept themselves for who they are and build positive self-esteem. With bullying being a relative topic on every teens mind, scrapbooking and collage-work are two of my favorite directives to use because both allow a teen to gain a sense of not only who they are but who they want to be without giving into peer pressures. With children and teens suffering from anxiety I do anything from drawing anxiety monsters and then of course finding a way to destroy that monster all the way to guided imagery and relaxation exercises. With young children going through messy or difficult family issues I engage by using my sand-tray, where a child can create his or her own world and tell me stories that they want to tell. I often get to see how their mind is interpreting what is happening at home. When a teen or child enters my office and is exhibiting a lot of anger related symptoms I always grab for my clay. Holding something like clay and being able to manipulate it in any way that you need or want to is a very cathartic experience. Teen boys especially enjoy pounding out that clay, sometimes we throw it at the wall, stomp on it, relieving any anger feelings that we may have. Another favorite of my activities is “throwing paint.” Due to living in the northeast I can only offer this when the weather allows because it is an outdoor activity. But the idea is exactly what you are picturing; we throw paint as a way of expelling, expressing and discussing ALL emotions. Many of my clients and parents allow me to photograph these creations and they are available to view on my Facebook page as well as my website.

RH:  How do family dynamics come into play when working with children and teens? How do parents and siblings play a role in healing, and in changing thoughts and behaviors? What work do you do with your patients’ families?

 

RS: Family dynamics are a HUGE part of treatment. As any parent out there will tell you, they know their children better than anyone. As a result I am in constant communication with parents because all of their feedback, comments, concerns etc. are super important. Whatever a client and myself work on in session must be reinforced at home and at school. I will often talk to parents (either via email, phone or in person) about how they can reinforce skills we are working on. I try to give as many useful tips as I can and I follow up to see what is working and what is not. This then helps me to continue directing the therapy in a way that is most beneficial for everyone. Parents are very understanding about confidentiality, specifically with my teen clients. I don’t divulge personal information shared unless I believe my client or anyone else is in danger of being hurt. With my younger clients, since their age is a very important part of what is going on parents are usually kept in the loop about everything. If I have an 8 year old girl, for example, who is constantly talking to me about “girl drama” at school I do feel it is important for parents to know this as these types of behaviors can often lead to more serious concerns such as bullying and poor self-esteem.

 

I do offer family sessions in addition to individual therapy sessions. This can be one or both parents and a child in session together, usually working on the parent/child relationship. This is helpful when behavioral issues are seen mostly in the home or any particular symptoms that only surface when a specific family member is present. I do sibling sessions as well, again if the therapy calls for it, allowing siblings to learn and work together in a safe and social space. Occasionally I will see a parent for a solo session based purely on how to help the child, so to be clear it is not therapy for mom and dad but instead I meet with them to talk about what they can do or changes that can be made to help their child benefit more from the therapy experience. If a parent requests something in particular, a meeting, reaching out to schools, etc. I typically will work with them in any way that I can help. I do not offer in-home services due to scheduling issues but I do refer out if I believe that in home services are needed.

RH:  What have been some of the more surprising or challenging parts of your job that you didn’t expect or anticipate when you got started?

 

RS: Definitely, the most challenging part of my job was when I was working with hospitalized children. A person gets used to seeing children happy and healthy and playing and it was quite shocking to be around children who were suffering from debilitating diseases. To this day I would describe it as the most difficult population that I have had to work with but also one of the most rewarding experiences that I will never forget.

 

When colleagues or friends talk to me about how I work with teens they are often surprised by how much I adore that population. Sure, they are definitely challenging but it is a healthy challenge! They really test you and push you to offer your best work, which is fantastic. So that to me is a challenge that I am happy to accept any day of the week! If you come across Child Life Specialists, Social Workers, Psychologists or Therapists that work in hospitals give them a smile; their work is tough and they do it well!

RH:  What is the most rewarding part of your job?

 

RS: The results. Smiles, hugs, positive updates, healthy changes, etc. It is all so amazing and rewarding. To this day I am always pleasantly surprised by how adaptable children can be and how they are capable of incredible changes. It is so easy to write a kid off by saying, “he has issues” or “she can’t be helped,” but I really don’t believe that. I think every child/teen wants to be happy; they just need help finding the right path. The rewards make all of the hard work, the pain, and the tears worth it.

RH:  Can you talk about your career path so far—from schooling, to your first few jobs, to striking out on your own and forming your own business?

 

RS: It has definitely been a long, exciting and hardworking journey! I graduated from Binghamton University in 2003 and went straight into my first graduate school program in Florida for Mental Health Counseling. From there I went directly into my second graduate program for Art Therapy. During those Masters programs I interned and worked in related fields such as working with underprivileged foreign children providing play therapy, providing sand tray therapy to after school programs, providing art therapy to grammar school children including developmentally delayed children within school districts, and working with hospitalized children providing medical education, art therapy and play therapy. My final internship was at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY and that ended up being one of my first major jobs in the field. I was hired to work as an Art Therapist and a Child Life Specialist on the Pediatrics unit with children varying in ages from infancy to young adulthood as well as various diagnoses from acute, chronic and terminal illnesses.

 

I began teaching at CW Post, first undergraduate Art Therapy classes but eventually I created my own course based off of my work in hospitals and I taught a summer workshop class to graduate and undergraduate students. This was a fantastic experience that I truly loved! I continued my hospital work at a specialized pediatric treatment center, Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center, where I provided individual and group Art Therapy for medically fragile children. In 2011 my family and I moved to New Jersey where I worked at a mental health counseling facility providing talk psychotherapy, group psychotherapy and art therapy for adolescents and adults. It was during my move from NY to NJ that I decided to open my own practice, first as a part-time practice and eventually as a full-time practice.


RH:  Why did you decide to go into business for yourself? How did you know you were “ready”?

 

RS: I always wanted to go out on my own and be able to provide the services I am skilled in, to the population I enjoy working with. That was always the big dream. While I worked on my part-time practice I did work in other facilities but I found that most of the mental health facilities out there were primarily concerned with making money and less interested in helping clients. This was not something I was able to get on board with. I have always prided myself on being an ethical and professional therapist and so the more that my integrity was being tested the more I knew I needed to focus on my own practice.

RH:  What people, organizations, or resources helped you with learning the logistics and ins-and-outs of starting your own psychotherapy business? Did you have mentors along the way? What was the process of establishing your own company like—what paperwork or steps did you need to complete?

 

RS: One of my professors in graduate school was a huge influence on me. She was the director of the art therapy program I attended and also ran her own private practice. This was the ideal combination for me. I too enjoyed teaching and always wanted my own practice. When I first began working on putting myself out there as a part-time therapist in private practice, I definitely bombarded her with questions. I sought her advice on paperwork that was needed, the various steps she took to get to where she was, and I happily took any advice she dispensed. Once I had an understanding of the logistics needed to start my practice I did my own research. I found out through the state and government what was needed to achieve my LLC and tax ID number. I then created a website on my own, bought several domains, and began utilizing social media as a way to market and get the word out. I still, to this day, do all of my own marketing, social media work and website management. I like that I get to be hands on and only put out there what I deem important and pertinent.

RH:  If a parent or caregiver suspects their child is struggling with depression, anger, social anxiety, or other issues, what are the first things they should do? Are there helpful things to say or ways to start a conversation with your child? Are there things parents shouldn’t say?

 

RS: Keeping an open communication policy at home is key! It will definitely get more difficult as children enter tween and teen years, shocking of course, but they tend to close up more. I recommend that parents start these key conversations early on with their kids, as early as pre-kindergarten. Ask questions about their feelings, how they are treated at school or at home or with friends. The standard “How was school?” or “What did you do today?” is really not enough. Children take your questions word for word so try to expand your questioning skills. “Tell me about some feelings that you had today? What made you happy/sad/angry/scared?” If they aren’t sure what these feelings actually mean, teach them! Teachable moments should not be overlooked.

 

As children get older hopefully they can continue with this in a more adult-like manner that tweens and teens will accept. Parents always ask if there are certain things that they should or should not say, but again I say to them, “You are the parent, you know your child.” The only time I ever recommend certain language or phrasing is if a problem has been recognized in the home and is being worked on, but that opens a whole new can of worms!

 

One of my favorite things to recommend is family dinner. Everyone’s schedules these days are so all over the place but every family needs a daily moment when they can be together and have a conversation. I know that not all working parents are home for dinner, but “dinner” can be changed to anything—breakfast, bedtime, game time, etc. Having that one special moment each day is something that your family can build on.

 

I always recommend that a parent pay close attention to changes; changes in mood, changes in behavior, changes in sleep or appetite, a change in social groups/peers, etc. Seeing these changes MAY help indicate some sort of issue but the better you know your children the better you can see when a negative change is occurring. Obviously if you know your child typically sleeps in and has a tendency to display “bad moods” you may not think of these things as being strange or in need of help. Parents know their children best and so if a parent is ever unsure, or on the fence about whether or not they should seek help, I always say just ask. What is the worst that could happen? This is one of the main reasons why I offer free consultations, because there are many times when I will meet a parent and a child and find that therapy really is not necessary. I speak to parents via phone or email when they first reach out with questions and we dive a little deeper to see if a consultation is even necessary! Most parents appreciate this because a) it helps them feel less “crazy” when they get a professional opinion and b) they don’t feel pressure to immediately sign their child up for therapy. If a parent sees changes like some of the ones listed above or really any type of change that they question, they should absolutely reach out to a local professional.

RH: Can you name a few websites, books, or other resources that might help parents and caregivers who are raising a child with mental health concern? And a few resources for teens who feel like they might need some help?

 

RS: I have so many resources that I love it would be impossible to name them all. I do keep a list on my website as well.  

 

Living in NJ, many of my recommendations would be NJ based, such as njmentalhealthcares.com or jerseyvoice.net. The suicide prevention line is great, as is a NJ helpline organization called The 2nd Floor.


National Alliance on Mental Illness is a national organization that has tons of great info especially for parents/caregivers, as is the National Institute for Mental Health.

 

Finally, for teens, I do love recommending To Write Love on Her Arms but this is a site that I would not recommend parents give to their children unless otherwise told by a professional. It is a site that is geared specifically for teens struggling with self-harm, suicide, depression or other more severe issues. It is inspirational and motivational and if I recommend the site to a teen it is pretty much guaranteed that they will relate.

RH: As a soon-to-be first-time mom, what have you learned over the course of your career that you think will carry over into your own parenting style?

 

If only being a therapist meant you were destined to be a great and perfect mom, right? Such a thing does not exist! I am a realist at heart so while I know there are certain things I have in mind that I would like to do as a parent, any good parent will tell you that you can plan and plan and PLAN and yet those plans­­­ may never happen. My parenting philosophy at this time would be the same as what I recommend to the parents that I work with. I always implement honesty, total honesty, in the work that I do. Kids, in my opinion, are like animals: they can smell fear on you and they can smell your lies so try to control both. I would love to always have open communication with my child(ren) and I think any parent will tell you the same. I just plan on taking it one day at a time, rolling with some punches, choosing my battles wisely and of course enjoying every second of it. I think every phase that a child goes through, from infancy into young adulthood, is special and challenging in its own way. (And as sadistic as it may sound, I think each phase is fun!) I am hoping that my career and my experience, if anything, will enhance my patience with my own children. If I can manage that then I think I am doing pretty darn well!