Unique therapy reduces risk of child abuse

A Griffith Health Institute trial involving 150 Queensland mothers and their children shows that a specially-adapted early intervention program significantly reduces risk factors associated with child abuse.

The coercive, stressful family environment which leads to incidents of child abuse in the home is being overcome through Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), a hi-tech interactive therapy program.

A unique part of the therapy involves mother and child in practice sessions where mum is offered guidance by a PCIT therapist using a bug-in-the-ear device.

The therapist observes real-time interaction between the mother and child from behind a two-way mirror.

The new study, carried out by Dr Rae Thomas and Professor Melanie Zimmer-Gembeck from Griffith Health Institute’s Behavioural Basis of Health program, surveyed families known to child protection services and identified as vulnerable to child abuse.

It found increased parent sensitivity, better behaved children and lower child abuse potential among families who received the therapy.

Half of the participants received PCIT while the second half (control group) was placed on a 12-week waiting list and were contacted weekly to discuss concerns.

This group was offered PCIT at the end of the 12-week period.

“With the first group there were significant reductions in the potential for child abuse to occur and this ultimately resulted in fewer notifications to child protection services compared with the families on the waiting list,” Dr Thomas said.

Previous research has shown coercive parenting, a lack of positive parent-child interactions and low levels of parental warmth to be key risk factors for child abuse.

This pattern of interaction leads increasingly to a demise in positive child behaviour, greater stress, and excessive disciplining of the child that can escalate to abuse.

PCIT reduces the factors associated with coercive family relationships by coaching the parents to have a more positive and sensitive interaction with their children.

“Parents reported distinct improvements in areas like stress and depression, and their interactions with the child improved,” Dr Thomas said.

“They also felt their new approach to parenting had a direct effect in improving their child’s behaviour and even how their child reacted in challenging situations.

“Many described themselves as feeling more competent as parents.”

The study is the first evaluation in Australia to test PCIT with families where there is known or suspected maltreatment.

Further research is required to identify the essential component of PCIT that produces the positive change.

However, Dr Thomas believes this evidence-based intervention could be a treatment of choice for practitioners working with parents at high risk of child abuse.