Therapist Christy Elwell on her background, the nuance of teen mental health, and the therapeutic benefit of baking
What’s your background?
I have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Denver for close to 10 years and have been working as a therapeutic clinician for 14 years. I graduated with a Master of Social Work degree, with an emphasis in family therapy and trauma.
I have partnered with the community on many different levels; from in-home family therapy to helping increase access to food and other basic necessities at a community health center. I have experience working with families in medical and school settings as well as individual therapy. This diversity allows me a better understanding of the struggles that youth and families may have in the areas of their lives.
When did you decide to become a therapist? What drew you to the profession?
I went to college looking for a career where I could help people, which is how I fell in love with social work. In my exploration of what a social worker can do, I realized that through partnering with people in therapy I can help facilitate growth and learning in a way that many cannot learn in school. I think the therapeutic process is one of the most beautiful ways to truly ‘see’ a person for who they are, struggles and all, and help them find new tools to become even more of who they want to be.
You work with a lot of teens. What is unique to teen therapy? What is rewarding about it?
Teens and emerging adults are in a special chapter of their life journey. During this phase, we see the world as a new place – both exciting and terrifying. Teens struggle to trust adults whom they believe ‘don’t get it’ and this can lead to isolation, anxiety, and depression.
When partnering with teenagers in a therapeutic relationship, I have to be both an adult gaining their trust; and joining with them where they are. Teens may identify more with their younger self one day, and then with the adult they are becoming the next. This is confusing for both the teen and their parents!
I find great value in giving emerging adults the tools they need to trust both themselves and others and to discern how they know something is right for them.
What importance do you see in healthy attachment for teen mental health?
Many times when we talk about the ‘developmental job’ of teenagers we speak to their differentiation from their parents. While this is very true, the adult a teenager is becoming blossoms from the type of attachment they have with their caregivers.
I say ‘caregivers’ because having a challenging relationship with parents does not always result in an unhealthy teen if there are other supportive adults with whom they have a secure attachment.
We create our definition of ourselves as people from the attachments we have as children, and teenagers are in the middle of ‘defining’ who they are. If a teenager has an unsecure attachment style because of the lack of stable relationships in their childhood, than their difficult but possible task, is to establish a healthy and stable relationship with themselves and a healthy concept of who they are as an individual.
What are the barriers to teens getting the help they may need?
Teenagers, as well as adults, suffer from the stigma that therapy can have. Because teenagers are in this space of individualism and individuation, they also can struggle even more to ask for help from adults.
Teens do not feel that their parents understand their lives and hardships, and therapists (as adults) can get lumped into the category of “unaware adult” and be unworthy of trust.
Parents may also be a barrier to a teenager asking for help. At times, our teens struggle with what may seem like trivial emotional wounds, and parents can be tempted to minimize their feelings. This attitude will fast-track parents to the previously described “unaware adult” category!
There are also aspects of a family’s culture that may cause parents to hesitate in encouraging their teen to share family business with an outsider.
If a teen senses an adult’s hesitation in involving a therapist, that may cause a conflict and the teen might want to protect the family rather than get help.
What do you tell parents to look for when wondering if their teen needs mental health therapy?
If your teenager starts to change their affect, loses interest in things that they once enjoyed, starts talking of disinterest or hopelessness about the future, they may be struggling with depression.
This is hard because, during the teenage years, your child will naturally become less interested in the activities of their younger years, want to spend more time in their room, talk to their friends, but not to their parents, etc.
These are all expected changes and can really mimic the signs and symptoms of depression. Having a teenager and Being a teenager is hard!
How would your clients describe you?
I believe my clients would describe me as thoughtful and fun. I naturally live my life aware of the currents of emotions that are in every situation. I also am a firm believer that life is meant to be experienced and enjoyed, not philosophized.
I like to play games and engage in an exploration of emotions through play and playful encounters.
You are also a talented and highly experienced baker. How many loaves of bread did you make during the pandemic? Do you find baking therapeutic, and would you recommend it?
Ha! That’s true, I do bake a lot of bread 🙂 I enjoyed the time at home that allowed me to make and perfect my sourdough bread recipe. I currently make a loaf a week and have been doing so for at least 6 months (so that’s at least 24 loaves, not counting the loaves I made as gifts).
The main way I show love is by baking for others. I also am a firm believer in the therapeutic benefits of baking, and have experienced the cathartic release that spending time with dough provides. Mindfulness and meditation are big buzzwords right now, and I totally get behind the movement. Baking is, in essence, the practice of being present and focusing your energies on what you’re doing right now. Which is the rudimentary definition of Mindfulness.
Sourdough is especially more time-consuming; it’s a little like having a pet since it needs to be fed and worked with weekly or daily. This also helps keep me mindful of what needs to be done and of the needs outside of myself.
Caring for others and other things is a great way to increase your sense of well-being and sourdough is a pet that you don’t need to get approved through your HOA or your parent 🙂
I love the idea of therapeutic baking and would love to hold groups where we do just that and talk through feelings while kneading and baking scrumptious things.
Schedule a free consultation at UpliftMEchildtherapy.com to begin working with Christy. She helps pre-teens and teens, young adults, and parents live better, mentally healthier lives through the strength of attachment, community, and therapeutic support.