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Faculty supervise students leading Parent-Child Interaction Therapy sessions.

Taming temper tantrums

CMU faculty and students help parents manage challenging behavior, strengthen bonds

Contact: Ari Harris

​Picture a toddler in full meltdown mode: You can almost hear the screaming, stomping and sobbing of a small child with tear-stained cheeks.

Temper tantrums and other disruptive behaviors may be not just embarrassing for parents, they could be potentially damaging to a child's health in later life.

Parents Active in Their Children's Health, a new program at Central Michigan University, aims to help parents strengthen relationships with their young children, avoid challenging behavior, and prevent health issues such as obesity and depression later in life.

Meltdowns, tantrums and other disruptive behaviors

Larissa Niec is director of the CMU Center for Children, Families and Communities and a faculty member in the clinical psychology program.

Niec said no matter what a parent's background or experiences may be, most want their child to be happy and successful. They want their daily family life to be less stressful. They want positive interactions with their child but may struggle to manage tantrums and other negative behaviors, she said.

Left untreated, those negative behaviors can increase risk for problems such as drug use, depression and even suicide in the teen years. In addition, toxic stressors in a child's environment, such as violence and extreme poverty, increase the likelihood of physical health problems later in life.

Niec said positive parent-child relationships can act as a buffer against health problems and even offset negative environmental influences in a child's life.

Together with Sarah Domoff, another psychology faculty member, Niec is training CMU students and community-based child therapists to use Parent-Child Interaction Therapy to help parents navigate challenging behavior.

Real-time help for stressed parents

During a PCIT session, a parent and child interact in a playroom while a graduate student therapist observes through a one-way mirror. The therapist provides ongoing coaching to the parent using an in-ear device.


Larissa Niec supervises graduate student Mitchell Todd during a PCIT therapy session.

Niec and Domoff train and supervise the graduate students, who guide parents through common daily scenarios such as mealtime and bedtime.

"We are helping parents build skills to navigate behaviors such as overuse of digital media devices, inappropriate mealtime behaviors and making good food choices. We help parents learn to stay calm and focused during tantrums and address issues in a way that is healthy for the child and the rest of the family," Domoff said.

Parents typically attend about 16 sessions with their child and often say they can witness moment-by-moment changes in their children's behavior, Domoff said. Situations that once caused chaos become opportunities to build warmth and trust.

Building better family relationships

Irene Brodd, a third-year psychology graduate student, said she wanted to practice the PCIT model of therapy because she wanted to help parents strengthen their relationships with their children.

"When they first arrive, most parents are frustrated. They want to enjoy time with their child, but they don't know what to do. As we progress through the PCIT sessions, I can see and hear them becoming more confident. They say things like, 'I know what to say, and I know what to do. I can stay calm. We enjoy being together again,'" she said.


Irene Brodd, left, works directly with families to identify and address problem behavior.

Brodd said CMU's strong combination of scientific study and clinical practice best fit her desire to work in both patient care and research.

Working with Niec, Brodd has been able to work directly with parents and children, train undergraduate students, and participate in research. She contributed to a chapter in Niec's upcoming "Handbook of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy" and will travel to Toulouse, France, with Niec to conduct PCIT training early next month.

"As a practitioner, I can work with only so many families in a year. By training other practitioners to use the model, we can help hundreds more," she said.

Brodd hopes to use her training to work with active-duty and veteran military families.

Training future clinicians

"Our mission at the Center for Children, Families and Communities is threefold: conducting research on the method and its outcomes, training students and practitioners, and providing direct service to children and families," Niec said.

In addition to training and supervising the graduate students who work directly with parents and children, Niec and Domoff also involve undergraduate students at the center. Undergraduate students participate by learning the methods and observing sessions. They assist with research and may provide hands-on interaction with children during sessions while parents receive coaching. They also assist with grant writing and data collection.

"Their level of involvement in the treatment is beyond what many graduate students in other programs are able to do," said Domoff.

New study enrolling soon

Niec and Domoff recently received a $405,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of PCIT therapy on children's health outcomes in areas such as diet, physical activity and screen time. Families who are interested in participating in the study may contact the CMU Center for Children, Families and Communities by calling 989-774-6639.

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