Yes, you can have a child therapy practice and not spend every evening in the office! Starting a counseling practice working with kids can be an intimidating process. Kelsey Torgenson shares how she created a niche practice working with anxious kids in this interview.
Why did you decide to become a psychotherapist?
I decided to become a therapist my second year of college, and I can even remember the specific moment. I was sitting on a hill in Swansea, Wales, on my study abroad semester, journaling about what I was even going to do with myself when I got back to America and my junior year of college. I had always loved working with kids, and knew from one semester that education wasn’t the right route for me, so I planned to immerse myself more in the psychology department and see how to link up working with kids to my major.
After I returned to The University of Iowa, I joined up with an infant communicative development lab, studying language development in 10 and 12 month olds. Our hypothesis was that engaged parents, who responded with active descriptions rather than just saying “yes” or “uh huh” or ignoring their kids, would help their children develop language at a faster rate. That parent/child relationship is crucial, and that’s how I decided I wanted to continue working on parent/child relationships as a therapist. Applying to graduate school led me to the MSW program at Washington University in St. Louis, and through my classes and practicum experience at a St. Louis trauma center, I discovered my passion for trauma-informed therapy for kids and teens in St. Louis.
Why did you decide to open up a counseling practice in St. Louis?
I’ve worked for years in non-profits as a clinician and staff supervisor, and while I loved getting to work one-on-one with my kids and teens, there are so many hoops to jump through as a non-profit. I wanted to stop focusing on time sheets and grant requirements and office politics. I also wanted to niche my practice so that I was working with the clients I was most effective with, and able to refer out when I was not the best fit. Often, non-profits are flooded with clients, and there’s an attitude of “you have to see everyone, no matter what.” I needed the freedom to keep a small, intentional case load, instead of burning out. It’s been amazing to go from 50 kids on my 2-day caseload to 15 clients a week. My work feels so much more intentional, and we reach outcomes at a much faster rate.
Why did you decide to specialize in anxiety counseling for kids, teens and college students in St. Louis?
In the elementary school I worked at, teachers and parents would often refer kids to me for anger management or conduct disorder. And after awhile, I started finding that those angry kids often had something else going on underneath the surface of their behaviors, like trauma or anxiety or stress or depression. I want to help spread the word that anxiety doesn’t just look like your “typical” symptoms of shyness or avoidance. It can also lead to serious outbursts and overwhelm. And regardless of how that anxiety is being expressed, we can build a plan and learn some relaxation skills to deal with it.
What do you wish you’d known before starting a counseling practice?
You have to be business-minded to own a counseling practice. There are so many numbers to run and P&L figures to consider before you make any decision in your business. You can’t just go with your gut feeling of how much to charge – you really have to consider what you’re bringing in vs. what you have to pay out.
What was your biggest aha moment in growing your private practice?
Before I even opened my practice, I met with a former teacher of mine from Washington University who taught my couples counseling course. She owned a very established counseling practice in St. Louis, and she took me under her wing. Something she said that really stuck with me was that, even as a clinician with 30 years under her belt, she still had those months where she thought, “This is it. Nobody’s coming. Nobody’s calling. I might have to close.” That felt huge, hearing this very well known therapist normalize doubting your business. Private practice will always have its ebbs and flows, and when your case load dips, you have more time to focus on the administrative side.
What is your best piece of advice for anyone starting a counseling practice?
Budget, budget, budget. This is something I avoided until I started private practice coaching with Miranda Palmer at Zynnyme. I use YNAB to assign jobs to my money, so I know exactly what each dollar is earmarked for, including quarterly taxes, rent, my sick time, and fun stuff like art work. I don’t just buy something and assume its fine because I have money in the bank – I know what each dollar needs to go to. (This was aha moment #2!)
What advice do you have for other anxiety therapists around the country in private practice?
Follow your passion, and be an advocate for people with anxiety. So much stress and perfectionism is normalized, and people often tell themselves that stress is good. The problem is, stress and anxiety can get so big, so fast. It can cause us to overreact, and it can hold us back. One of my favorite parts of private practice is writing an anxiety blog for parents, teachers, and college students, so that I’m able to provide help and information to more people than I could ever see in my private practice.
Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, MSW, LCSW specializes in anxiety and stress management for kids, teens, and college students. She opened her private practice, Compassionate Counseling St. Louis, in 2017. She loves working with anxiety and all the ways it presents, including separation anxiety and school avoidance, anger management, perfectionism, and college overwhelm. For parents, teens, and college students located close to St. Louis, you can set up a free 15-minute phone consultation right on her website, at www.compassionatecounselingstl.com/consult