Psychologists say that the consequences of untreated behavior disorders in children are not just glares at the grocery store or the playground: Research has found that such children are more apt later to have drug and alcohol problems, to drop out of school, to develop other mental illnesses and to spend time in prison.
Though stimulants such as Ritalin are often prescribed for behavioral problems, medicine alone is not seen as an effective treatment for young children with disruptive behavior disorders.
PCIT may also play a role in reducing child abuse. A 2004 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that 850 days after treatment, 19 percent of physically abusive parents who had undergone PCIT had been re-reported to child welfare authorities, compared with 49 percent of physically abusive parents who received conventional services. A new line of PCIT research is also showing promising results with autistic children.
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PCIT has its roots in the early 1970s, when Sheila Eyberg, now a professor emeritus at the University of Florida in Gainesville, began developing the technique out of frustration with the two prevailing interventions: play therapy, in which a therapist gleans a child's inner dramas from the way he plays with toys in a clinic; and behavior therapy, in which parents meet with a therapist once a week to discuss their child's behavior problems and develop responses.
Parent and child were rarely with the therapist at the same time. As a result, the child associated the calming effects of play therapy with the therapist, not her own parents. Parents, meanwhile, struggled to apply the therapist's lessons at home.
Eyberg's insight was, in essence, to cast parents as play therapists to their own children. The professional therapist still had an important role but was behind the scenes, performing a kind of ventriloquism through an earpiece until parents internalized the therapist's voice.