Turning a Childhood Dream Into a Career Helping Children With OCD

February 17, 2020

Maria Fraire, PhD, has known she wanted to be a therapist since she was eight years old.

“People told me, ‘Oh, you’ll change,’ but honestly, I’m a bit tenacious,” said the incoming program director of McLean’s Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.).

Fraire has been particularly interested in child mental health and anxiety disorders. She grew up in Northern California, where her father, who is a writer, and her mother, who is a social worker, influenced her observational skills. Fraire noticed anxiety in the people in her life, particularly in her peers, and noted that no one really knew what to do about it.

“One of the things I found so interesting about anxiety is it’s one of those disorders people think of as relatively benign when they don’t know all that much about it,” she said. “People often think, ‘Oh, everybody has a little bit of anxiety.’ But it can actually be really debilitating—particularly in kids, it can manifest in so many different ways.”

Maria Fraire, PhD
Dr. Maria Fraire new she wanted to be a therapist when she was still a child and she is now fulfilling her childhood dream

Fraire’s training and research have always focused on helping youth who experience anxiety disorders and other forms of emotional dysregulation. She specialized in treating obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) because the condition can be so painful and is misunderstood by the general population.

“The intrusive thoughts that are part of OCD can be so scary,” Fraire said. “They don’t match who the person is, their core values, and who they want to be. There’s a part of them that thinks, ‘This isn’t who I actually am, but maybe it is.’ It causes all this doubt and uncertainty around who someone is as a person. It can really take over their entire life.”

Fraire and her colleagues work with children who have OCD to help them realize the condition is separate from who they are as people. “We help get them back to finding their own potential and back into their everyday life. I find that to be very rewarding,” she said.

Fraire completed her post-doctoral work at McLean’s OCD Institute and ended up staying on as a staff psychologist. In 2017, she became the director of clinical services at the McLean-Franciscan Child Community-Based Acute Treatment Program, an acute short-term residential program for youth. During this time, her interest in mentorship and in helping early career clinicians find their focus areas solidified.

That move to an administrative role was finalized when the straightforward career path she charted in childhood curved slightly.

“I discovered that’s where I really wanted to be, which is not what I would have predicted,” she said. “I thought I was going to be primarily a therapist, augmenting clinical work with outcome research. What I found was being an administrator actually combines those things: you use a lot of similar research, analytical skills, and you use a lot of clinical skills to support your team so they can do strong clinical work.”

In Fraire’s latest role as program director of McLean’s OCDI Jr., she is overseeing the geographic relocation and expansion of the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute. In addition to continuing the excellent clinical services, she is looking forward to expanding the training program and developing outreach programs focused on pediatric OCD.

She remains in touch with her mentor from her graduate program at Virginia Tech, the renowned clinical child and adolescent psychologist Thomas Ollendick, PhD, with whom she still collaborates on projects.

“He showed me how a mentor could set expectations and still support people to get there in a gentle and guiding way,” she said. “The expectations were always clear, and I found that to be a very helpful model to use moving forward.”

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