When one hears the term “parent-child interaction therapy” (PCIT), it might be assumed the therapy’s purpose is solely for that specific use — i.e., for parents to use with their children. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, PCIT can be used in therapy sessions, then the therapist can teach the child’s teacher how to use PCIT in the school environment and, of course, the therapist can teach parents how to use these skills at home and in community settings, all in an effort to coordinate and synchronize treatment across settings.
Sheila M. Eyberg developed PCIT in the 1970s out of the University of Florida. It was built from multiple theories of child development, including attachment, parenting styles and social learning. In the past, PCIT was intended mostly for children 2 to 7 years old with disruptive emotional disorders and behavior disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder. The purpose of PCIT was to work on rapport building and to enhance the relationship between the child and parent, for the child to develop more intrinsic motivation to comply and for the parent to develop more positive feelings toward the child — a cycle that can then be positively repetitive.
In addition to disruptive disorders, PCIT also seems to help children with anxiety disorders. In particular, there is research demonstrating its efficacy with the anxiety disorder of selective mutism. Therefore, clinicians have also begun using it for social anxiety disorder, social phobia, school phobia and agoraphobia. In school and community settings, PCIT is used as an antecedent intervention that helps shape the environment to create an emotionally safe space for these types of anxiety disorders to be more effectively managed. (It should also be noted that PCIT can be used to treat ADHD and anxiety beyond age 7 with simple modifications.)
The goal of this therapy is to produce more prosocial behaviors, regardless of the diagnosis. For example, with anxiety disorders that specifically manifest as a fear of being around people or communicating with others, the goal is for the child to be less inhibited and avoidant. The child’s symptoms might include struggling to leave the home, averting eye contact, displaying a shrinking body posture and having frozen reactions, both in terms of a lack of verbal response and a lack of body movement (think of a “deer in the headlights” appearance). The goal in such cases is to help these children manage their symptoms so they can present in a socially expected manner.
On the other hand, children with ADHD can present as too disinhibited, demonstrating hyperactive, impulsive, incessant and intrusive behaviors, so the goal is to adjust those behaviors to be more inhibited.
Subsequently, the PCIT goal for both of these populations is to produce more desired social behaviors, which will lead to better social outcomes, thus perpetuating the cycle in a positive manner. When children receive positive social feedback, they are likely to keep using these skills in an effort to continue engaging in positive interactions.
PCIT is a relationship-enhancing therapeutic technique. The concepts from this therapy that I use with children who have either ADHD or avoidant anxiety disorders revolve around Eyberg’s child-directed interaction (CDI) and PRIDE skills. CDI and PRIDE go hand in hand and, when combined, have been shown to build rapport with the other person and build confidence and self-esteem within the child (in an effort to manage both disruptive and anxious-avoidant behaviors). If a child feels comfortable with a certain relationship, that child may feel more valued, worthy and confident and have stronger self-esteem. As a result, the child will be less anxious, better able to manage disruptive impulses and more likely to use expected social skills.
Children with ADHD often struggle with their self-esteem because of the amount of negative feedback they tend to receive on a daily (or more frequent) basis: “Don’t touch everything in this store.” “Stop asking me if we can go to the pool.” “Leave your sister alone.” “Why can’t you just behave?” Yet if a child receives positive feedback versus corrective feedback in an approximate ratio of 4-to-1, the child will be more likely to comply with the directive to “stop asking that question,” to “leave your sister alone,” etc.
Children with the avoidant types of anxiety disorders also struggle with self-esteem because of the negative judgments they assume and perceive that others are making about them. When these children receive praise, it helps them feel less anxious. In turn, when their brains are stabilized, they are more able to use their actual abstract counseling strategies (such as cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT) on themselves to manage their anxiety and actually “leave the house,” “maintain eye contact,” “use complete sentences” (rather than one-word answers), etc.
In therapy, PCIT can be used as a stand-alone treatment, but I recommend combining it with other therapeutic treatments such as operant conditioning, exposure therapy and CBT. Of course, the use of CBT will depend on the age of the child and whether his or her brain is developed enough to process abstract counseling strategies. Children don’t usually possess this ability until age 7 or 8. It should be noted that use of these treatment techniques (alone or in combination) does not guarantee success or an absence of symptoms.
Implementing PCIT with CDI and PRIDE
Some professionals refer to CDI as “child chooses.” Regardless of the terminology, during this portion of PCIT, no directives are to be given to the child and no questions are to be asked until CDI has been used for at least three minutes. This allows the child to feel positive about himself or herself because nobody is giving directions to correct something that the child was “doing wrong” upon entering a room or during a new transition.
When children feel positively about themselves, they are more likely to comply later down the line. Therefore, it should be noted that CDI is not a time to criticize. CDI means that the child will choose something to do without any adult direction. The adult (whether that is the counselor, the parent or the teacher) is to observe what the child does and give the child physical space if the adult’s presence seems to agitate or increase anxiety in the child. After at least three minutes of CDI, the adult uses PRIDE skills (verbal interaction from the adult) when the child seems more emotionally regulated. PRIDE is an acronym that directs the adult to offer the child labeled praise, reflection, imitation, description and excitement/enjoyment (in the adult’s voice).
As a real-life example, let’s say that “Alison” is in homeroom at school first thing in the morning. At the therapeutic school in which I work, this is where the students meet in the mornings to get any homework lists, eat healthy food, use coping skills, check in with their teachers and therapists, and practice socializing with peers appropriately. CDI is used immediately upon students’ arrival.
In this case, Alison puts her backpack on the floor upon entering the room, then goes to sit at her desk (her backpack is not where it is supposed to be, plus it is open, with its contents falling out). When Alison enters the classroom for the first time, it is time for CDI, so the teacher is not to direct her to move the backpack, at least for a few more minutes. (If your first interaction involved someone telling you to correct something, think about how you would feel.)
At her desk, Alison eats an apple, and then a peer asks Alison for a piece of paper. Alison silently gives her peer the paper, without offering any eye contact, and then gets up to throw away the apple she just finished eating. She then remembers to get her assignment notebook out of her desk. Even though Alison’s backpack is open on the floor with papers, food and more disorganized contents spilling out, the teacher doesn’t direct her to do anything until after offering Alison the full array of PRIDE skills:
- Praise: Praise appropriate behavior. This should be specific labeled praise about what is positive. In this case, it could be any number of things: “Alison, thanks for sharing your paper with Sarah. You are so helpful” or “Thanks for throwing away that apple in the garbage. You are very responsible” or “You remembered to get out your assignment notebook. You have a great memory!” This labeled praise includes helpers to build confidence in Alison related to both her IQ and her EQ (emotional intelligence), therefore lessening her anxiety and helping her manage her impulsivity.
- Reflect: Reflect appropriate talk. This means the adult reflects back what the child says to them. For example, when Alison is done with her assignment notebook, she asks the teacher, “When is the fire drill?” The teacher is to reflect the main concept of the question. In this case, the teacher might say, “I am glad you want to know when the fire drill is so you can be prepared. That is very responsible of you. It is at 9.” Reflection is key to letting children know you are really listening to them. And if someone is listening to them, then they feel valued, understood, worthy and accepted, lessening their anxiety and raising their self-esteem. In this case, the teacher also offered more labeled praise about Alison being prepared and responsible.
- Imitate: Imitate appropriate social behaviors. If Alison takes out paper and colored pencils to draw as a “quiet coping” skill during the appropriate time, the teacher takes note of how to imitate this same concept down the line. “Your drawing just reminded me of something, Alison. When all of the homeroom students have arrived, we can all play that drawing game we played a few weeks ago. Would you be willing to lead the game since you really understood it last time and are such a talented artist?” This lets Alison perceive that she is worthy because she was doing something that the teacher also wants to do (artwork). This serves to lessen Alison’s anxiety. It also helps her realize that she can in fact be a leader herself, increasing her self-confidence.
- Describe: This is the time to give behavioral descriptions. Simply describe what the child is doing, which shows the child that someone is both attending to them and giving approval of their actions. This serves to increase the child’s confidence and decrease anxiety. For example, the teacher might tell Alison, “You’re drawing a sports car with a mountain in the distance. That looks fast and powerful yet peaceful at the same time. That’s pretty impressive and creative that you’re able to capture all of that in one picture.” This description also includes more labeled praise pointing out that Alison is creative.
- Excitement/enjoyment: Demonstrate excitement in your voice, which is key to attending skills. This strengthens the relationship with the child and allows the child to experience many positive feelings. This also increases the chances the child will comply when you give a corrective direction.
It should be noted that some people with anxiety fear receiving positive praise in front of other people. If this is the case, adjustments can be made to the treatment technique.
In Alison’s case, all of the PRIDE letters were used, and she received even more than the allotted three minutes of CDI time. Alison’s CDI time included getting to choose to eat her apple, asking her fire drill question and taking out paper to draw a picture. Once CDI and PRIDE have been used, the teacher can move to adult-directed interaction, in which the teacher can finally:
- Ask questions: “Alison, do you have your math assignment from last night?”
- Direct some peer interaction (such as getting the students together for the drawing game referenced earlier).
- Give instructions (such as addressing that backpack issue): “Alison, it would help us out if you could close your backpack and put it in your locker. I would hate for anything of yours to get lost or for someone to get hurt tripping on it.” When Alison complies with that direction, the teacher can follow up with more labeled praise: “Thanks for following directions.” One caveat: Never say, “Thanks for listening.” There is a big difference between someone “listening” and someone “following directions.”
The CDI/PRIDE skills/adult-directed interaction combination should be used in the child’s home continuously, at play dates in others’ homes, at school and community activities and, of course, in the therapy office. PRIDE continues to be a way of communication, so it doesn’t stop when the conversation gets going.
In the therapy office, once emotional regulation has been established with the combination of CDI/PRIDE/adult-directed interaction, the counselor can move to reminding the child of the operant conditioning plan, then work on CBT skills or exposure skills to continue building strategies to manage impulsivity or anxiety.
If children’s ADHD symptoms are impairing their social and educational functioning with significant intensity, frequency and chronicity, it is also likely that a psychiatrist will prescribe a stimulant medication. ADHD is a genetically based, neurobiological disorder that affects many parts of the brain. Medication can touch parts of this, especially when it comes to dopamine and norepinephrine disruptions, but it can’t adjust everything. Even for the parts of the brain that can be medicated, medication doesn’t guarantee an absence of symptoms. That is why it is crucial to continue using therapeutic techniques as antecedent management and counseling strategies to help children function in their different environments.
In terms of anxiety, for those suffering impairment in their social and educational settings on an intense, frequent and chronic level, the first line of medication will likely be a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). This is because the main area of the brain affected is serotonin (in addition to anxiety affecting norepinephrine, glutamate and the limbic system structures of the hippocampus, hypothalamus and amygdala). Again, however, an SSRI will not guarantee an absence of symptoms, which is why therapeutic techniques, exposures and counseling strategies remain key.
For more examples of how the attending skills of CDI, PRIDE and others related to PCIT can be used in school settings, home situations and community/recreation settings, please reference my two books: Toddlers & ADHD and Suffering in Silence: Breaking Through Selective Mutism.
Donna Mac is a licensed clinical professional counselor in her 12th year working for AMITA Health in one of its therapeutic day school locations. Previously, she was a teacher in both regular and special education settings. She has three daughters, including identical 9-year-old twins diagnosed with ADHD hyperactive/impulsive presentation and selective mutism anxiety. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her websites: toddlersandadhd.com and breakingthroughselectivemutism.com.
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