Therapy with Sarah Bren, PhD

Dr. Sarah Bren is a Clinical Psychologist in Westchester County, NY who specializes in parenting support, family therapy, postpartum mental health, trauma, relationships, life transitions, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Bren is trained in psychodynamic and behavioral therapies, including CBT and DBT, and has extensive experience in both individual and group counseling.

We asked Dr. Bren about her work with clients and her guiding philosophies on therapy.

Dr. Bren’s background, specialties, and therapy philosophies

1. What was your previous work before going into private practice?

Before becoming a parent myself, my clinical work was primarily focused on helping adults learn to regulate out-of-control emotions. I worked with patients who had experienced pervasive childhood trauma, disrupted attachment, and limited exposure to healthy coping strategies. In order to get better, they needed to learn how to connect to their own experience in the moment, be able to name what was happening, calm their nervous systems, identify the appropriate coping strategy from the tool box I helped them build, and use it effectively.

When I became a parent, and I began really studying the psychology of parenting. It became clear to me that the work I had been doing with my adult patients was in many ways related to the kind of work I was doing with my son in order to help him to feel safe and secure in his relationships, to feel confident in his ability to move through his emotions (no matter how big or uncomfortable they might be), and to develop a solid sense of who he is as a person.

It was this awareness that led to a pivotal shift in the focus of my clinical work. If I can help parents help their children feel safe, secure, understood, and validated, I would be helping those families to support the kind of healthy childhood development that leads to lifelong emotional wellbeing and the capacity to build meaningful relationships throughout life. I also found that these practices help to reduce the stress, pressure, doubt, and martyrdom that is so often experienced in today’s mainstream parenting approaches. By extension, this helps to reduce psychological distress in parents and results in families that are healthier, calmer, and more aligned with one another.

2. What guiding principles inform your work?

My work with parents and families is rooted in Attachment Theory and Respectful Parenting Principles. I genuinely believe that every child wants positive connection with their parents, even when they engage in behaviors that seem to undermine that connection.

Our job as parents is to look past the behavior and connect with the drive, the emotion, and the part of the child that wants to be seen as unconditionally lovable. In my work with parents and families, I help everyone (the kids and the grownups) feel seen, heard, and held. It is only when people feel recognized and safe that they can begin to unpack the layers of all the things that aren’t working, set them aside, and make room for new ways of thinking, new ways of listening to one another, and new ways of connecting.

3. What clientele do you work with most frequently?

I work with parents wherever they are on their parenting journey – from preparing to become parents, to the postpartum period, and all the way through the teen years. For parents who are just starting out on their parenting journey, I work with them to set the foundation for secure attachment, healthy emotional expression, and a collaborative, respectful relationship with their child from birth.

I also work with families who are struggling with behavioral issues, relationship issues, communication issues, or with effective discipline and limit setting – whether that means you feel like you are banging your head against a wall because no matter what boundary you set, nothing works, or maybe you are reluctant to set any boundaries and need help asserting your authority with confidence.

I also see many families that are supporting children with mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, social/peer challenges, significant behavioral or emotional dysregulation, or trauma. I work with these families to come together to understand the root causes as well as the environmental obstacles that are at play, to reconnect, reestablish trust and safety, and to find ways to support one another through whatever challenges they may be facing.

4. Can you tell us more about your specialty in working with parents?

Many parents feel overwhelmed with the intense pressures and demands of raising children. I offer a space where parents can talk openly about parenting struggles with no shame and no judgement. I offer sound, psychologically valid information to help them understand what is not working and why, so they can understand the root causes of the behavioral and emotional breakdowns of their children (and themselves).

I empower parents to have healthy, mutually respectful relationships with their children, to be confidently and calmly in charge, and to have a wide variety of tools to help their children to cooperate, participate, and regulate their emotions so there is less chaos and stress in the family.

5. Can you tell us more about your family therapy specialty?

Sometimes families feel like they have hit a roadblock – something isn’t working, or maybe it hasn’t been working for a while. Whether it is a behavioral issue, a relationship issue, a mental health concern, or a trauma, I provide the reassurance, support, and guidance towards reconnecting as a family. I offer an approach to family therapy that acknowledges the entire family system as a whole being – one that must be supported in its entirety in order to treat whatever symptoms are being expressed.

I help families come together to understand the root causes as well as the environmental obstacles that are at play, to reconnect, reestablish trust and safety, and to find ways to support one another through whatever challenges they may be facing. Through this process, families are able to create a healing environment that supports mental wellbeing and family harmony.

6. Can you tell us about your specialty in postpartum mental health?

I work with new parents who are feeling overwhelmed by the need to do everything perfectly, feeling confused with where to begin, and/or feeling guilt, shame, or fear. Any of these experiences can affect the parents' ability to connect or bond with the child and can be very upsetting and unsettling as you are finding your footing as a new parent.

Whether you are experiencing a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD) or are just struggling to feel connected with a new child, I offer an environment for the two of you (through parent-infant dyadic work) to be together in a new way; for you to learn how to observe your child and yourself without preconceived notions, expectations, or judgements. I help you to quiet the noise and find ways to authentically connect with your baby and enhance the sense of attunement, connection, and trust that are the building blocks of secure attachment.

Therapy sessions with Sarah

7. What will our first session together be like? What happens in ongoing sessions?

When families work with me, I take into consideration all of the personal histories, unique stressors, family values, and individual temperaments that their family holds, and find ways to create interventions that are custom tailored to their needs. Our first session will focus on gathering these details, with the goal of getting to the root of the issue that is bringing you in. From there, we will develop a plan for you to practice at home with your family, with ongoing strategy development as we figure out what works best for your family.

8. How long do clients typically see you for?

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their challenges. I see parents and families for as few as three sessions or as long as a year or more. I usually can get a sense of how long treatment will take after an initial consult and am very transparent with families about how much time I think we might need to address their concerns.

Also, children grow up quickly and so do family dynamics and challenges. As a result, it is not uncommon for families to work with me for a period of time, find resolution, and then come back again later on as new concerns emerge with changes in development.

9. Are there any books you often recommend to clients?

I often recommend the Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel when I am working with families on understanding how their children process and express their emotions. I think this book does a fantastic job of using accessible language for how to understand what is happening in the child's brain when they are overwhelmed or losing control of their behaviors. This helps parents to stay calm themselves and use effective tools to guide their child through their emotions and into a calmer state.

I also always recommend:

-Your Self Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

-Baby Knows Best by Deborah Carlisle Solomon

-Elevating Childcare by Janet Lansbury

10. Do you assign “homework” between sessions?

I often tell parents that the 45 minutes a week I might spend with a child in therapy cannot hold a candle to the countless hours a child spends with their parents each week. That is why no matter what the issue a child may be experiencing, I always prefer to have the parents and/or the entire family in the therapy sessions. I then encourage parents to spend their time outside of therapy implementing the new ways of thinking about, communicating with, and relating to their children throughout the week. I believe this helps families see real change much faster and see the effects of therapy last longer and become integrated into the family as a whole.

Visit Dr. Bren’s profile to watch her introductory video, read more, and book an initial call!