Allow us to introduce you to Kris Smith, LMFT of Mother Warrior Counseling in Orange County. She is a therapist specializing in helping parents - especially mothers - through the life changes that come with having children. Her work is truly of the heart, and we hope you'll enjoy getting to know her a bit.
Tell us about your background and how you came to work with mothers specifically.
I started my career in mental health in the early 90’s while in my undergrad program studying Psychology. While in college, it was highly recommended to work in group homes (residential programs) to gain experience, so I did. At the time, I worked with at-risk youth ages 12-18 years who were diagnosed with mental illness and for some, also addiction. After graduating with my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I continued to work in group homes and the human services field in one capacity or another because helping people was always my passion. It wasn’t until 2008, with the economy in serious trouble and having two kids under the age of 3, that I decided to go back to school to finally obtain my Master’s Degree and Licensure.
While in grad school I was constantly told by instructors and professionals in the field that I should find a niche to work in, so I decided I would work with trauma survivors. But beyond the idea that we all have experiences in our life that are we feel are “traumatic,” I really couldn’t pinpoint specifically why trauma was interesting to me; until the day it hit me like a ton of diapers (pardon the pun).
When I became pregnant with my first child, I really thought I had it all together. I was in my early 30’s, educated, happily married, happily employed, and surrounded by friends and family, so of course… what could possibly go wrong? Boy, was I in for a rude awakening! The only thing to really say about my labor experience is 40 minutes and no epidural… and if you’ve given birth to a child, you will be the only one able to understand what that might have been like. Traumatic comes to mind! I recall vividly having him placed on my chest afterwards and through my shock-induced haze, looking down at this little person who looked completely unfamiliar and with whom I felt no connection, and thinking “Holy s**t, what am I supposed to do with him now?” Not exactly the reaction I had fantasized about for the previous 9 months.
The weeks of untreated anxiety and depression that followed led to the moment that is my daily inspiration for wanting to help other moms. It’s the moment where I told my own mother, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and almost gave up. The thing is, I knew something was wrong but instead of getting help, I stayed paralyzed in my house believing that the something wrong was me. It took me a long time to change that belief on my own.
I don’t want other moms to go through this, and I know they do! It’s our silent and shameful secret. But it doesn’t have to be! What we believe is actually not true and we are not as alone as we feel. So, through my own self-discovery, I finally realized why I was so drawn to trauma work. Whether becoming a mother or already being a mother, motherhood in and of itself is a life-altering experience. A shift of self and a new identity that never changes and one that forever directs and informs everything else moving forward, including our relationships, self-perceptions, important decisions, and paths. My goal with Mother Warrior is to provide a safe and understanding space for moms to let down their defenses against shame and judgement, explore the challenges they are struggling with, and reconnect with the strengths they already possess.
We love your business name, Mother Warrior! What does that term mean to you?
When I was trying to come up with a name for my practice, I really wanted something that would speak to the strength of a mother; a word that a mother would look at and connect with in a powerful and motivating way to remind them that underneath all they are struggling with, they ARE strong and CAN get through it. Unfortunately, the feedback I was getting about the name was that moms who are struggling may not connect with being a “warrior” when they are reaching out for help. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this at the time and I considered changing it, but soon it occurred to me that the name Mother Warrior actually isn’t intended to reflect how the mom feels about herself when she first comes to therapy. It’s intended to remind and motivate her that there is a warrior deep inside that will be realized through the process of therapy. A rediscovery and ownership that transforms her through a change in thinking, the process of healing, and the ability to stand with all of the strength and grace of the warrior that she is, who never stops fighting for her children, her family, or herself.
When in the perinatal period do you typically work with moms?
I’m here for moms at any stage of the perinatal period and every stage of life. Mother Warrior Counseling is designed to be a safe place for moms to come when they are feeling scared, sad, or nervous in their pregnancy and/or after giving birth, overwhelmed and frazzled during the toddler and school years, guilty or resentful about returning to work or staying home, unsatisfied or isolated in relationships, contemplating or deciding on big life decisions (including career change or divorce), or even managing empty nest syndrome. My goal is to help moms find inner strength, build self-worth, explore and understand behavior patterns, and change the negative thought processes that have invaded the mind so they can feel better, think clearer, and make lasting change.
What is your approach to therapy? What methods or modalities do you draw from?
I consider my approach to be empathically direct with a dash of humor (if that’s even a thing). I place great value and respect in the fact that these moms are reaching out for help, and they are reaching out to me, so I don’t believe in wasting their time with nothing but feel-good affirmations. There’s certainly room for some of that in the therapeutic relationship, but if that’s all someone wants, then they most likely already have a friend who is more than willing to provide it.
My work with clients is two-fold: I am empathic as a fellow mom who understands, and I am direct and clinical as a trained therapist who truly wants lasting change for you. I will absolutely hold your hand while challenging you to change your thinking. This is not something that we typically get from our friends because friends want to make us feel better in the moment, while I want YOU to make yourself feel better for a lifetime.
In clinical terminology, I would say that I am an eclectic therapist. I’m skilled in a variety of modalities, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Solution-Focused Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, Relational Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and Person Centered Therapy to name a few. I use techniques from all of these depending on the needs of my clients.
What do you feel are your particular strengths as a therapist?
The words that keep coming to mind are empathic, empowering, passionate, caring, direct, and funny. I know that last one seems out of place, but I have found there to be great healing through laughter. Laughter also has the ability to lower our defenses, connect us with others more easily, and lessen the fear and anxiety of talking about the hard stuff. I’m always very careful about when and why I use humor in a session, but when I do, it’s always effective.
As for the other strengths, you know, I think almost every therapist would use the same or similar adjectives to describe themselves… I mean, we did all go into the same field. But it truly takes this kind of person to be with a client in the space s/he is in: authentically engaged in their thoughts and wholeheartedly invested in their recovery. I am committed to partnering with my clients on their journey and I stand for them and with them as they travel through self-discovery.
We love that you offer services in clients’ homes, online, and even as walk-and-talk sessions in addition to visits in your office. How did you decide to work with clients in these four different ways?
When I reflect back on my struggle with perinatal mood disorder, I recall times when I couldn’t leave the house, let alone organize my thoughts enough to reach out for help. I always wonder if I would have had a better experience with my first child if someone would have come to me to provide the help I needed. At the time, no one was talking about postpartum depression or anxiety as much as they are now, and there certainly wasn’t anyone out there advertising in-home therapy services. So as a new mom struggling with symptoms of severe anxiety and disorganized thinking, I didn’t seek the help I needed and stayed home quietly struggling.
When I decided to focus my services on helping moms, it was always because I never wanted any other mother to experience what I went through, including struggling silently at home. We were hearing more and more about horrifying situations where moms were being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and even psychosis only AFTER something bad happened. News articles were informing the world that these women were struggling with treatable symptoms by portraying them as negligent, bad mothers, or worst yet, monsters. I thought to myself, would any of these circumstances had different outcomes if these moms got the help they desperately needed in an easier way?
Ask a mom what she does in a single day, and the word you’ll most often hear is “everything.” Well, where in a day filled with “everything” is a mom supposed to not only find time to care for herself, but make all the other necessary arrangements in order to get her “me time"? This was unacceptable to me because, as a mom, I truly understand the dilemma, and just how quickly a mom will push her needs back to the bottom of the pile if it's more work just trying to get there. This is when I came up with 4 different ways that a mom can take care of herself and get the help she needs without disrupting the routine as much as possible.
I offer an in-home option where I will come to the client’s home for sessions and work around a mom's existing schedule. This is a great option for home-bound moms, moms who want to stay on track with nap time routines, and moms who can’t leave their children. No house cleaning necessary, comfy clothes encouraged, and no travel time to and from an office.
The next option I offer is a Walk & Talk. This option continues to grow in its popularity because it offers the ability to incorporate movement and exercise while being outside rather than in an office or house. Another benefit to the Walk & Talk sessions is that while you are talking with the therapist, you are doing it side by side rather than sitting across from them. Studies have shown that there is a positive benefit to doing this as it can lower our defenses and increase comfort when talking about difficult subjects. For at home moms, this is a nice option because kids are welcome to come along so there’s no need for a sitter. For moms who work outside of the home, it can be convenient to have a therapist meet you by your work for a walking session rather than using a lunch hour to rush to and from an appointment.
The third option for moms to take advantage of is online therapy. These days, technology has made it really easy for people to get the help they need. "Telemedicine" is being used by therapists as well as physicians to meet with clients for a face-to-face online appointment that is safe, private, and helpful. (I use a HIPAA compliant platform with my clients that protects their medical confidentiality.) The best thing about this option is that all you really need is a device with a webcam and a microphone and you can have a session from wherever you are.
My final option is the traditional in-office session which is by no means extinct. This is a great choice for moms who really need a change of scenery and some time away from the responsibilities of work, home, and family. An in-office session provides a client with a comforting space in the privacy of an office and the ability to directly connect with the therapist in a traditional manner.
Can you tell us what clients can expect from a session with you?
Well, depending on where and how we meet, as well as how long we’ve been working together, it might differ slightly. But in every scenario, my clients can always expect to be engaged in conversation, heard on a deeper level, understood, and given some tools and support that will help her strengthen her insight and make progress toward her goals.
Typical sessions last for 50 minutes and my clients will always hear me ask them at the beginning of the session how their week has been. This question really helps moms take a quick mental glance at the previous week - what she chooses to mention first is typically what’s heaviest on her mind. This gives us a great starting point. Throughout the rest of the session, I am able to work with the client on weaving in patterns, history, achievements, challenges, etc. You name it and we most likely cover it. I give my clients a 10-minute “warning” to help them safely pack up what’s been brought out so they are able to switch gears once they leave me. We also review any goals for the week, tools and techniques to practice, and confirm the next appointment so they feel wrapped around with support and able to manage the week ahead.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about working with a therapist?
The one misconception that I think most people hear is that therapists are going to “shrink” them or “figure them out”… as though we have special powers to reach inside the mind and suck out all of the information! This one always makes me laugh a little. I like to save my energy for the people that are coming to me for help and even then, my primary focus is not in figuring them out, but in partnering with them to help them learn about themselves and make healthy changes in their life.
I think in regard to actually being in therapy, the biggest misconception that people have about working with a therapist is that it means they are weak or somehow flawed. I believe most, if not all, therapists would actually say the opposite is true; it takes a tremendous amount of strength and determination to go to therapy and be willing to do the hard work to change your life.
Another misconception about therapy is that it has to be long-term, when in fact, progress and change can actually take place in a few short sessions (depending on the treatment modality and the issues a client wants to work on). Some people need longer-term care for more in-depth work, some people respond well to shorter term treatment of a few months, and then there are some that just need a “tune-up” to keep moving forward, address pressing issues, or acquire effective tools to make immediate change.
What is your biggest piece of advice for mothers who might be struggling?
DON’T STAY SILENT! Tell someone you trust that you are struggling (a family member, friend, or a doctor) or reach out for support through one of many hotlines available. The biggest thing for moms to know is that they ARE NOT ALONE and they CAN BE HELPED.
If a mother isn’t sure if what she is feeling is “normal” or not, that’s perfectly understandable. It's also a perfect time to check in with a professional who is trained to help rather than wait to see if it gets worse. Most people wait until they are at crisis level to get help rather than approaching these issues proactively. Mental health is just as important as physical health, yet it’s the last thing we get help for when something is wrong. I often ask moms if their child were suffering, would they just wait it out to see if it gets better or would they bang down every door to get answers and help her child find relief? The answer is always the same. Then I ask why they wouldn’t do that for themselves? The answer is always the same. The answer needs to change and that’s what I’m here to help with.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Constantly feeling inspired by my clients, and being given the honor of hearing their stories and the trust to help them through their struggles. I love seeing those “a-ha” moments because for me, it’s a reaffirmation of why I do what I do. And for them, it’s progress towards change.
Kris's contact information
Mother Warrior Counseling
Offices located in Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano
Additional resources from Kris
Postpartum Support International Warmline
National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Website