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Whatever It Takes

As a Spanish-speaking therapist at CCFH, Whitney has specialized in older children and adolescents, but she began training in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) in 2019 to fill a gap in the clinic’s Spanish language treatment options for younger children. Five-year-old Sonia was her first PCIT client.

Sonia had become a terror to her parents. Small frustrations sparked severe tantrums. She had sudden mood swings and could not focus on any activity for more than a few moments. Her behavior could be so severe at times that her mother felt she could not take her out in public. They worried what would happen when she started kindergarten, and they were increasingly concerned about the safety of her infant brother as she became more jealous and physically aggressive toward him.

As concerned as they were, it was her parents’ troubled marriage that was at the root of Sonia’s behaviors. They argued heatedly, often in her presence. There was infidelity and a cycle of unhealthy coping strategies. For Sonia, this instability in her most essential relationships was a threat to her sense of safety and well-being, and she responded with symptoms of traumatic stress.

At first, even though both parents were attending, there was little progress in treatment. Whitney was offering them reliable skills and practices that could give Sonia the safe, nurturing environment she craved, but they were not putting them into practice at home. They used session time to catalogue Sonia’s latest bad behaviors, and their marital tension was increasing. Finally, in a very difficult session, Whitney put her foot down. She stopped and asked if they were truly committed – individually and together – to doing what was required for Sonia to heal. Faced with such a stark question, each one responded earnestly that they would do whatever it took.

And they did. Together, they began practicing their PCIT skills at home regularly, even using them with their two-year-old. “It turns out,” Whitney says, “Mom was brilliant at applying the skills.” She also saw a significant change in how they talked about Sonia’s behavior, recognizing it as her response to their parenting rather than her simply being bad. They also noticed that good things were starting to happen with Sonia, which reinforced their commitment. And they began seeing a couples’ therapist to work on their relationship.

Sonia’s response was incredible. The frequency of her tantrums dropped to once a week. She was no longer moody, and her parents discovered that positive feedback and praise made her really happy. She was calmer. She listened more readily and loved it when she was recognized for helping, and she was showing no behavior problems as she started school.

Sonia and her parents have graduated from treatment, and, while there’s still more work for Mom and Dad to do, they are at peace with their daughter. “I feel like I’m in control of what is happening in my relationship with her,” her mother says, “and now I know she really is a good kid.”

Note: To preserve privacy, names and photos used here are representative, not actual.

Posted on March 10, 2020