Easter Seals Story: The Benefits of Child-Parent Psychotherapy

Content brought to you by Easter Seals Michigan

In the large window of Nicole Irons' Hazel Park home, you may find a note painted on the glass saying, "I love Matiah because she's really smart," or "I love Matiah because she helped her sister."

The window notes from mother to daughter are a unique way Irons has found to express her feelings to her daughter that Matiah, who has high-functioning autism, really appreciates. Matiah, 7, goes through periods of being able to express her feelings toward her mother and other times where she lashes out at her mother's hugs with a "Don't touch me" or "I hate you."

"It's a tough one to swallow when your children won't tell you they love you and you feel like you've done something wrong," Irons explains. "But through therapy I've learned new ways to show Matiah I care and to see that she cares, too. Sometimes, it's not through words."

The Irons family are part of Easter Seals' early intervention services and receive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) at the Judson Center.

The approach to helping Matiah goes beyond just treating her individually, but focuses instead on building up family bonds. In this approach, called Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), therapists work with both a parent/caregiver and the child to provide tools for better communication and understanding.

"From infants to age 5 is a time of rapid development in the brain," explains Denise Arbaugh, family services program manager at Easter Seals Michigan. "Having a strong attachment to a parent or caregiver helps positively impact that development."

But if a child is not able to properly bond with a parent or caregiver – due to an autism diagnosis, for instance – it can have a lasting influence on her development.

"We know now through current science that an infant with poor to no attachment with a parent or caregiver will have different neurological connections than those who've had a secure attachment," Arbaugh says. The lack of attachment, and the security that comes with it, can negatively affect a child's emotional and social growth.

CPP is an evidenced-based treatment for families that have been exposed to trauma. Easter Seals has used this practice to go beyond just trauma to build relationships for families facing other difficulties. "CCP supports the relationship between the child and the parent, building a sense of attachment," says Uriel Stephens, director of family services at Easter Seals Michigan. It guides parents and other caregivers in understanding how their child is trying to relay their emotions and then gives them tools to build bonds with their child.

For Irons, CPP opened her eyes to how her daughter perceived the world and how to tap into that understanding to guide Matiah toward better behavior. "She really struggles to make friends and she feels bad about that," says Irons. "But she also doesn't quite know yet how to interact with kids. I have to really work with her to have her understand their point of view."

Generally, CCP involves weekly visits, often in the home, where the therapist goes through play exercises that teach specific relationship-building ideas. Irons has found that she's able to draw out more of her daughter's personality through play. Before therapy, she'd maybe be able to hold her daughter's attention for three minutes, but now they can play together for 30 minutes. "It helped that the therapist helped me to set reasonable expectations for Matiah's behavior," says Irons.

There are still tough days, but now Irons feels better able to accept them.

"I'm not consistently frustrated with her behavior. Sometimes you've just got to let stuff go." For other parents experiencing similar difficulties with their children, Irons offers this advice: "A lot of parents don't know that there's help out there. They figure their kid is just bad, and then you start feeling like a bad parent. But they're not bad. There is help."

Easter Seals Michigan serves and supports people with disabilities or special needs and their families, so they can successfully live, learn, work and play in their communities. Easter Seals has been serving Michigan residents since 1920.


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