Lesley Wayt thought running, yelling and jumping on the furniture were just signs of the terrible twos.
When her son Connor Schon turned 4, and his bad behaviors persisted, she knew something wasn't quite right.
Six months ago, Wayt and Connor enrolled in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) at River Hills Recovery Center, a specialty outpatient program of Jackson Recovery Centers.
Since February 2011, 100 children ages 2 to 7 have participated in PCIT, an evidence-based intervention designed to promote a positive parent-child relationship while reducing disruptive behaviors at home, such as fighting with siblings, refusing to get ready for bed and dawdling during cleanup time.
"He's really good at complying at this point," licensed mental health counselor and therapist Becca Whitlock said of Connor. "His behaviors are fantastic."
Before PCIT, Wayt said she felt guilty disciplining Connor when he misbehaved.
"I was really unsure how to respond. I didn't know how to discipline. I would just kind of let it go," Wayt recalled, as she sat at a table in a yellow playroom at River Hills picking Legos out of a blue plastic bucket.
Connor snapped the Legos onto a gray base to create a spaceship.
"You're doing so good with those Legos! You're good at building things, Connor," she said enthusiastically.
After a few minutes, Wayt, with Connor's help, was flying a spaceship of her own in the air with her hand. "Zooommm!" she said, following Connor's lead. "I love to play Legos with you."
LEARNING TO CONNECT
Once a week, Wayt wears an earpiece as she colors, assembles Mr. Potato Head or drops large, colored plastic coins into a toy cash register with Connor. A microphone in the playroom's ceiling amplifies their voices.
On the other side of a two-way mirror, Whitlock stands in her office intently watching mother and son play. She acts as a coach, giving Wayt feedback through the earpiece.
The 53-minute sessions run for 22 to 28 weeks and are often recorded. Treatment focuses on two interactions: Child Directed Interaction and Parent Directed Interaction.
During Child Directed Interaction, which is similar to play therapy, Whitlock suggests ways that Wayt can encourage and support her son while playing with a toy of his choice. Wayt admitted that she didn't exactly know how to play with her son before PCIT.
Six months ago, Whitlock said Connor wouldn't have even sat down for two minutes and played Legos with his mom. When Wayt used to try to play with Connor he would scream, "Stop it!" He wasn't used to the attention.
"It's just not the moms that don't know how to play with the kids. The kids don't know how to play with the moms," Whitlock said. "It's very empowering. It really teaches parents to connect with their kids and using positive reinforcement to get the behavior changes."
During the second phase of PCIT, known as Parent Directed Interaction, Whitlock advises Wayt on commands, which are to be given to Connor one at a time in a normal tone of voice.
"There's rules to what commands look like and how they're given and how often they're given," Whitlock explained. "If you go to the store you'll see parents giving 15 commands in a five-second period and no kid can comply with that."
She said parents need to "pull back," which takes the anger and frustration out of telling their child what to do.
Wayt and Connor have been so successful that they now attend PCIT monthly. A few weeks ago, Whitlock accompanied Wayt to Fareway and Family Dollar to practice what she's learned in public.
"His behavior has improved 80-90 percent," Wayt said of Connor. "It's strengthened our relationship and connected us as a mother and son."
At one end of the playroom is a small enclosed area with a door. The walls are low enough for an adult to easily see over, but too high for a young child.
Connor cried the first and only time he was sent there for a timeout. Wayt said she hesitated when disciplining Connor in the past, because she felt guilty.
"I feel really bad when he starts to cry or get upset," she said. "For me to put him in timeout at home, it just wasn't something that I could do on my own."
Whitlock got Wayt through that first timeout with words of, "It's OK, Lesley. He's fine. You're going to get through this."
Now, Connor can sit in a chair quietly during timeout without attempting to flee. Although discipline and listening are pieces of PCIT, Whitlock said most behavior changes occur during playtime when the child's needs are being met.
"Once your needs are met, very rarely do you need to act out to try to get what you want," she said. "I think parents are typically looking for someone to tell them how to get their kids to listen. Really it's about listening to the kids first."
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