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The Short Version: Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Shelby Riley has helped hundreds of couples, individuals, and families make significant changes to overcome hardships in their relationships and lives, and many of those people could not have accomplished their goals without the help of a professional — which is why Shelby works to combat the stigma associated with therapy. Shelby has a thriving practice in Pennsylvania where she works alongside five associates. She also writes an advice column and is preparing her first novel for publication.
When she moved her practice from San Diego to Pennsylvania, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Shelby Riley immediately noticed a difference in the culture. In California, it seemed like everyone had a therapist — or was one. Seeking mental health therapy was a normal and widely accepted part of life for families, couples, and individuals. But things were much different in Pennsylvania.
“On the East Coast, there’s often a stigma or worry that people will find out you’re in therapy,” Shelby said. “At the same time, there’s also a lot of pressure and families are stressed out. Here on the East Coast there’s a lot of pressure to do well in school, to work really hard, to make a lot of money and succeed. Both the children and the parents feel that anxiety, pressure, and stress.”
In addition to spending time counseling clients and managing her team of associates, Shelby also spends time reaching out to couples, families, and other therapists to encourage more people to seek the help they need.
According to Shelby, when couples encounter major problems in their relationships, therapy can result in people having stronger bonds than they did before their problems began.
“The work we do is life-changing for people. We’re helping them do the work so that they don’t need us,” she said. “They’re learning the skills and the awareness about what kind of relationships they want so they can work intentionally to create those on a daily basis.”
When Shelby was in college, she decided she wanted her career to allow for a balance between work and family life. Thinking of the family portrayed in the 1980s television sitcom “Growing Pains,” she decided to pursue a career in family therapy.
She completed a graduate program at Virginia Tech and moved with her husband to the West Coast so they could work and have time to surf and bask in the sun. She worked toward licensure at a psychiatric hospital, a residential treatment facility for adolescents, and a private practice for children with histories of physical and sexual abuse. Those experiences ensured that, when she opened her private practice, she was ready to help anyone she could.
Not long after the birth of their son, the couple decided to return to the East Coast — specifically Chester County, Pennsylvania — to be near family.
“We’ve been able to strike a fantastic work-life balance. We’re both active parents and active professionals, and our son has had a lot of time with both of us,” Shelby said.
Today, Shelby’s practice is located in a historic hotel in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. There, she sees clients and manages clinical supervision for a team of five associates. She also helps other therapists excel in their own practices.
“My business coaching teaches therapists to grow thriving practices, and I do a lot of speaking on that topic at national conferences,” Shelby said.
“We have couples who recognize that they’re not connecting like they used to and are not doing a good job of talking about it,” she said. “We see a lot of affairs and couples trying to manage how to divide the labor in the home so that they don’t resent each other.” — Shelby Riley, LMFT
The vast majority of the clients who Shelby and her team work with live in suburban Philadelphia. Most are families and couples who want help reconnecting.
“We have couples who recognize that they’re not connecting like they used to and are not doing a good job of talking about it,” she said. “We see a lot of affairs and couples trying to manage how to divide the labor in the home so that they don’t resent each other,” Shelby said.
Shelby fosters communication, which is key to resolving those issues. Dialogue can help individuals become more honest, vulnerable, and be a true friend to their partners.
Shelby recommends that couples or families attend therapy sessions every week for at least 1 to 2 months. That gives the clients and therapist the opportunity to form a trusting relationship, and clients can gain traction and start to see changes and success. After that, clients decide the frequency and pace of therapy until they reach their goals.
Because different clients may require unique methods of interaction, Shelby works with five associates in her practice. Some of the therapists on her staff are straightforward and direct with clients while others provide a softer approach. Some specialize in working with children and teens, while others offer a medical approach to diagnosis and treatment.
“We serve a wide age range, and some clients appreciate someone in their same age range,” Shelby said. “We’re always on the lookout for stellar team members, but I’m careful about who I add to the practice.”
Because of the size of her team, Shelby has therapists who focus on topics ranging from dating after divorce to healthy relationships and sexuality for teens and young adults.
While it may be harder to normalize therapy on the East Coast than it was on the West Coast, Shelby is working hard to erase the stigma. Another way she reaches out to the community is through her “Ask Shelby” advice column, which she writes for a local parenting blog.
“Part of the ‘Ask Shelby’ column is to normalize therapy and present common problems to families — mostly to moms,” Shelby said. “It’s a nice way to market my practice, but more to market therapy and let people know that there’s nothing embarrassing about getting help.”
Shelby’s writing extends well beyond her column as she’s written two books — “Five Secrets to Better Communication” and “Assignments for Couples.” She also said she recently completed a novel about a complicated family — drawing from her own expertise and experiences.
“I hope it’s an extension of the work we do in the office. I want readers to feel like they’ve been through a course of therapy and have a better understanding of their family dynamic,” Shelby said.
Shelby continues her work with clients with the goal of helping as many people as she can.
If she can take away some of the stigma surrounding therapy, she can help even more families and couples.