Dyadic Therapy: Working with the Parent-Child Relationship

Bringing parent and child together in therapy

Posted Jul 25, 2011

One of the things of which I am most certain, based on my years of practicing pediatrics together with my years of being a mother (and also just my experience as a human being) is that what children need most is for the people who love and care for them to understand them, and to be with them in a way that communicates that understanding

For this reason, I have never understood why a young child would be ever seen in psychotherapy without his or her primary caregiver (the possible exception being suspected abuse). Psychoanalytic theory contends that a young child has hidden conflict and fantasies that can be brought to light through imaginary play. This may well be true, but given the limited time and resources, is it really important? Certainly play  has a role in therapy, as this is the main language in which a young child communicates. But embedding this work squarely in the live parent-child relationship is essential.

Over the past year I have been engaged in an intensive year-long training in the U Mass Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program. Perhaps the two most valuable pieces of this experience were one, to have this viewpoint validated by the world leaders in this newly emerging discipline and two,  learning with a group of like minded clinicians from a wide range of disciplines, including social work, early intervention, infant massage, psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics.

This point was brought home for me when during our first weekend last September  we heard a case presentation and watched a video. Being ever mindful of confidentiality issues, I will describe only the basic points. The identified patient was a young child who had experienced significant neglect, with multiple losses and disruptions. This "dyadic therapy" we watched in the video was conducted with the child and adoptive parent together. The way in which both the setting and the therapist served to connect this mother with her very troubled child was magnificent. 

Some of the most painful cases I have seen in my practice are those of children adopted out of situations of severe abuse and neglect. Parents come to me for medication when the children have been diagnosed with ADHD. When I hear these stories of terrible trauma, I work hard to convey to the parents that while medication may be helpful in controlling the symptoms, it is not sufficient. 

Yet I immediately come up against intense resistance. The assumption is that I will recommend therapy. and the parents, for good reason, do not understand the purpose of individual therapy for such a young person. Yet a recommendation to work together with their child in therapy is also met with resistance. The difficult behavior is not their fault, and their loving and safe home should eventually cure the problems. 

Here in lies the beauty of this program. My biggest challenge is a paucity of colleagues to refer to. In my community there is not only a shortage of child therapists, but even fewer who work from a conceptual framework that supports treatment of parent and child together. 

My fantasy is that one day, when I see such a family, I will have a group of colleagues, all on the patient's insurance plan, who I trust to work to bring a parent and child together in the way I watched in that video yesterday. I know it's a dream, but at least as I sit with all of these colleagues who will one day be leaders in the field, I am hopeful that perhaps mental health care for children is moving in the right direction.