Wayne is typical of children who benefit from the therapy, which researchers have found most effective for those ages 2 to 7. According to clinical studies, families who complete PCIT see lasting improvements in child behavior: less-frequent and less-intense tantrums, less crying and whining, and less hyperactivity and inattention. Parents had less stress and enjoyed parenting more, and typically developed a closer relationship with their children.
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To one degree or another, nearly every preschooler has an inner Dennis the Menace. But families who enter PCIT have typically reached a crisis. Their kids have been expelled from day care or preschool. Parents, demoralized by one too many public meltdowns, have grown isolated from friends and emotionally withdrawn from their children.
A common refrain is: I love my child, but I no longer like her.
"I have had folks come in and say, 'What I need is Supernanny,' " says Teresa Loya, a clinical social worker who is the PCIT coordinator at the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Family Center in Baltimore. "More than that, though, they often say, 'I need to get rid of this kid.' "
"At our darkest moments, we thought, 'This child can't live with us anymore; he's going to have to go to a home,' " says Jennie, a 30-year-old mother of three in Auburn, N.Y., who once locked herself and her newborn in a bathroom for safety from her raging 5-year-old son, Alex. Jennie tried everything — play therapy, medication, a gluten-free diet — before she and Alex began making a weekly six-hour drive last year to the PCIT program at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan.
"I always thought that kids with [behavior disorders] came from abusive households or really sad, poor conditions where they witnessed violence. My son comes from a pretty cushy middle-class lifestyle. I felt very ashamed, like I'm not a good parent."