What is Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)?

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
July 5, 2019

Do you have a strong-willed child who struggles to listen and follow directions? Do you feel like you have to repeat yourself over and over until you yell to get your child to do what you’ve asked? Does your child exhibit tantrum behavior, yelling and screaming, and the infamous word “NO!” more times than you can count? If so, you may be interested in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). PCIT is a research-based therapy that treats young children (ages 2-7) who are experiencing difficulties with compliance, tantrums, and defiant behavior. This unique therapy allows parents and caregivers to adopt play and therapy skills that they can use at home to manage and redirect their child’s behavior. Research has found that PCIT not only helps children improve their ability to comply and follow directions, but it has had an impact on the overall parent-child relationship itself, helps with parent stress levels, and can even improve a child’s attention, concentration, language skills, developmental delays, and much more!


What Makes PCIT Different

PCIT is not your traditional therapy model; when most people think of therapy, they assume that a therapist will be in the room playing with a child and observing their responses and helping them process and explore some of their difficulties to improve their behavior. In PCIT, however, therapists are training parents to become experts on their own child’s behavior. PCIT sessions involve parents playing with their children in a play room while the therapist is in an adjoined room viewing their interactions through a one-way mirror. Therapists will communicate with parents via an earpiece and teaches them the best ways to improve their child’s behavior, based on research.

What do Parents Learn in PCIT?

The fundamental principles of PCIT involve teaching parents about how to reinforce positive behavior in their child’s everyday life and to eliminate reinforcement of their negative behavior. Many parents who come to treatment seeking assistance with defiant behavior admit that they feel as if they spend their whole day yelling at and redirecting their child’s behavior. Therapists help parents to notice how the yelling could actually be continuing the very behavior they yell to stop! Therapists then teach parents the best ways to use their attention as “currency” to improve their child’s behavior… and the way they teach it is all through play! Parents learn the skills that play therapists use to enhance their relationships with children and how these skills are even more effective in a parent-child relationship. Once they have reestablished their connection and relationship, therapists then teach parents the most efficient way to manage continued defiant behavior using consistent and predictable discipline sequences that have been proven effective by research.

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Researchers have found that the combination of the relationship enhancement skills and the discipline skills, when used collaboratively and consistently, can have a profound impact on a child’s behavior and their relationship with their parent or caregiver. In addition to this, parents report feeling more confident in managing their child’s behavior and report significantly less stress in their lives overall as a result of learning these tools to use in everyday life.

Where to Find a PCIT Therapist

Because PCIT is an evidence-based program, therapists must be certified, or must be in training to be certified to provide this treatment. Currently, there are two main organizations that provide lists of PCIT certified clinicians: PCIT International and UC Davis. There are many community mental health organizations that offer PCIT services in addition to private practice clinicians as well and searching above can get you set up with a therapist who can help you and your child improve your relationship for good!

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events

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