Dafna Lender

Dafna Lender, LCSW

My family moved from Israel to the United States when I was six years old. In those first six years the boulders and caves of the Judean Hills were my playground. I spoke no English entering first grade in Oak Park, Illinois and spent my elementary years trying to figure out which way was up in America. I was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at age 18 but I have not shed my immigrant perspective. I still see America from the outside-in.

I went to social work school because I was sensitive and felt other people’s pain. I wanted to fight injustice and make the world a better place. If ever there were an underdog in the area, I was on their side. I once slept in a parking lot with a stray cat because my parents wouldn’t let me bring it in the house!

After graduating from social work school, I worked in an agency that had a residential center for children 6-12 whose behavior problems were too severe to live in a traditional foster home. They stayed in the residential center for 2 years, after which point they were supposed to move to a pre-adoptive home. That was my job: preparing families and the children to acclimate into the adoptive home.

Trouble is, my training in grad school did not prepare me for the monumental and difficult task that dealing with a child with major attachment and trauma wounds required. The agency only provided individual, psychodynamically oriented therapy to the children, and the pre-adoptive parents were not included in the therapy. The children on my caseload failed to acclimate. The families, who had had the best intentions and who had successfully completed the foster parent training program, felt demoralized and devastated by the failure as well.

I felt burned out and doubted my choice of profession – I even thought of leaving social work to become a mortgage broker. Luckily, I found two modalities to train in, Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. I became deeply immersed in those studies and it transformed both my personal and professional existence. On a personal level, I understood why my own parents behaved as they did. I understood the meaning of intergenerational transmission of trauma. I understood that I had major sensory issues that prevented me from feeling comfortable in my body.

On a professional level: here were tools for working with the caregiver and child directly, to intervene on a practical, here and now level that actually made a difference. I suddenly felt happy to be a social worker again. I felt like I was making a difference and helping the underdog. I stayed in these modalities and became a trainer and supervisor in both.

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