Social worker, psychotherapist strives to change harmful behaviors in girls and young women
BY KIMBERLY ELSHAM For Sun-Times Media
Mary Waldon has been helping troubled teens in the north shore since 2005.
She said she believes kids are having more problems today but also that parents are trying to pay more attention to what their kids are going through.
“As puberty is starting sooner, biological and physiological changes are causing stress,” she said.
Waldon, 43, is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who focuses on girls and women’s issues. She also trains high school social workers in the northern suburbs and lectures about helping raise kids.
At her private practice on Green Bay Road in Winnetka, she sees girls and women, ages 14 to 24, and their families on an individual basis or in groups.
Her forte is dialectical behavior therapy, which focuses managing emotions to help change harmful behaviors, which include eating disorders and self-harm such as cutting.
She said cutting as a coping mechanism may work for the individual in the short term, but the feelings that follow the euphoria are the problem.
“It just doesn’t work very well,” she said. “We’re about behavior replacement.”
Much of this kind of therapy has patients talking about and analyzing their day-to-day choices to help them to “be their own therapist,” in a way, she said.
For a typical session, a patient checks in with Waldon about recent events and how he or she handled them.
“You’re not unloading everything,” she said. “It really comes back to what did you do, how did you feel about, what could you have done differently.”
Waldon began in political theory, which she studied at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“I was into women empowerment issues and understanding how people come together. I wanted to look more at the truth,” she said, and found, for her, its core lay in one’s behavior.
After her graduation and taking a few years to start a family, she attended a graduate school fair and learned about the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
“It was all the things I was interested in rolled into one,” she said.
Waldon said she had a female-focused upbringing. She was the only child of a single mother growing up in Baltimore, but she had a lot of support from her aunts and grandmother. She attended St. Paul’s School for Girls in Baltimore where she said her childhood community was similar to the north shore.
“It’s a place where people achieve a lot and work very hard,” she said. “They’re very educated and want the same for their kids.”
Still, she said she always notes that people in affluent communities have just as profound and difficult problems as those with other backgrounds.
“Suffering doesn’t have anything to do with how much money you make,” she said. “Suffering transcends socioeconomic status.”
Waldon stays busy by lecturing to parents and faculty.
Her lectures, such as one titled “Girl Power: Raising Resilient Girls in 2012” that she gave at Deerfield High School on Jan. 18, focus on helping parents raise healthy young women in an increasingly stressful and time-limited society.
“Anyone who has a daughter has the most difficult job in the world,” she said to open the Jan. 18 event. “Moms need support in this world that keeps raising the stakes for them.”
Andi Berkowitz, 56, Deerfield Parent Network co-chair, met Waldon at a parent education speakers’ showcase. She said she was “blown away” by Waldon’s presentation. She booked her for the event, and the response was huge. Waldon’s lecture drew in more than 200 parents from the Deerfield area.
When she talks to parents, she encourages better communication: not just talking with kids, but letting them know that their reasoning and opinions have merit. Waldon also emphasizes attainable changes instead of hard-nosed rule-enforcement.
For example, though studies support that children should stop using backlit screens (such as those on TVs or smartphones) two hours before bed, adjusting this rule may work better for your family. Try one hour or 30 minutes, she said.
“It’s not necessarily reasonable to turn life completely upside-down. It’s about helping kids develop a routine, eat better and have better sleep hygiene,” Waldon said.
“I couldn’t write fast enough to note everything I wanted to remember about what Mary had said,” Berkowitz said.