This Durham, NC Nonprofit Is Helping Parents Create Positive Relationships With Their Kids
This article is being published in its entirety with permission from Exchange Family Center. To learn more about Exchange Family Center’s mission to make children’s lives better by strengthening their families, teachers, and communities through proven counseling, coaching, and training, visit https://www.exchangefamilycenter.org/
“These strategies work so well,” says Erica, a Durham mother of three, “but when you’re caught up in daily parent life, they never cross your mind.”
Erica, whose kids are nine, eight, and four, originally came to Exchange Family Center (EFC) to focus on her middle son, but recently completed a “refresher course” with all three kids. EFC has supported Durham families free of charge since 1992 with a range of evidence-based therapy services for families with kids of all ages.
“It was really valuable to have started the service in the office to learn the skills there,” but in the refresher course, Erica needed more flexibility. Dinner time, in particular, was very stressful: “Me trying to cook and my son is literally climbing walls and furniture. We couldn’t replicate that in the office.”
So not only did the EFC therapist come to Tiffany’s home, she also did sessions around and during the family’s dinner time. “That was really helpful,” Erica says.
Leah Parrish Santibañez, LCSW, says that flexibility is essential to EFC’s work. Parents bring their histories, “how they were raised, things they liked, things they didn’t, maybe histories of trauma. Then children bring their own personalities.”
So, she argues, therapy has to be “very individualized to the parent and the family.”
‘He puts himself in danger’
Erica and her children participated in the Exchange Family Center’s Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) program. She described her middle boy as “extremely impulsive, hyperactive” but also, “he puts himself in danger quite often, one of his behavioral problems was chewing batteries.”
In situations like this, kids must follow instructions from their parents. Unfortunately, Tiffany’s kids were getting mixed messages from family members who were quick to punish. Her ex-husband was “quick to spank, I was quick to take a privilege, another gave 10-minute timeouts….which is totally inappropriate.”
PCIT coaches parents to use consistent and predictable strategies that target problem behavior, and to build warm, secure, and positive relationships.
When your child is chewing on batteries, you can’t have ‘a ten-minute debate,’” Erica says. “I used to say: ‘I’m gonna count to five.’ Then he knew he had five seconds to push me.” With PCIT, there are time restrictions, but the kids don’t know them, so Erica’s son “didn’t bother debating because he didn’t know how much time he had to comply before he went to a timeout.”
Interestingly, Erica reports that her communication became so “clear and thorough” that her middle son went to timeout only “one time and it didn’t happen again.”
Santibañez makes clear that these results don’t come from only setting limits. For her, PCIT’s focus on improving relationships is paramount. “When children feel that their parent cares about them, they are more likely to respect and follow the parent’s instructions.”
“I’ve gotten control back as a mother.”
– Erica mom of three, EFC client
Before Erica started with EFC she says: “I went to bed every night with ‘mom guilt.’ I yell at my kids; they are physically fighting. I’m totally failing them as a mother.” She even avoided bringing them out in public because “their behavior was so bad, people would be staring at us. As a mother, that’s very dis-empowering.”
Santibañez insists, however: “If you improve that relationship, it improves behavior.” Part of improving the relationship involved what Erica called “designated, special playtime.” And by only the third session she began to see progress. “They were so excited to have this time where we could play together and I was not fussing at them for anything.”
EFC teaches parents to “praise good behavior and ignore bad,” Santibañez says. “Focusing on the positive builds self-esteem and shapes behavior.”
Ironically, parents usually do the exact opposite. “It’s so easy,” Erica says, “to correct their behavior when it’s not appropriate and ignore it when it is.”
“Now I’m so much more confident. I don’t have to feel ashamed. I don’t have to yell. I know that I’m effectively communicating and we’re all on the same page. I feel like I’ve gotten control back as a mother.”
Looking ahead, the future is “pretty bright,” Erica says. Her children play together more, share better, and her middle son is “getting along with his siblings, which is huge.” And finally, “we can get through dinner with a peaceful household and happy children. That’s just amazing.”