The Role of Parents in Mental Health and Trauma Therapy

This week we welcome guest blogger Erin Neill. Erin is a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University. She is also a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington, DC. Erin is passionate about all things mental health.

Events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, abuse, and neglect are all examples of traumatic experiences that many children in our country and around the world experience on a daily basis. Experiencing a traumatic event leads to poor outcomes for children, including acting out, poor school performance, substance abuse, and mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Fortunately, we know that there are effective treatments for childhood PTSD. One of those treatments is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. But what we don’t know is exactly how, or why, or for whom CBT works best. We need more information about this. For children we want to know, what is the role of parents?

There is some research that suggests that children and parents have a reciprocal relationship. That is, children and parents interact with each other to affect how CBT treatment is working. So far, however, there have been very few studies that show this type of relationship.

In my research, I looked at data for children who had experienced a traumatic event and developed PTSD as a result. These children, and only the children, attended 12 weeks of a CBT intervention. We also asked moms (who brought their children to treatment each week) to report on their child’s PTSD symptoms as well as their own maternal depression symptoms.

The most exciting finding was that even though the moms did not receive any treatment themselves, their depression symptoms decreased significantly over the course of their child’s treatment. But even more, they were part of the reason that their child got better over time. I found that it wasn’t just that child PTSD symptoms decreased over time, or because of the treatment, but at least part of the reason that kids’ PTSD symptoms decreased was because the moms’ depression decreased as well. I also found a reciprocal relationship; Part of the reason that moms’ depression symptoms decreased over time was because of their child’s PTSD symptom decrease.

This data provides evidence that moms and children really are affecting each other’s mental health. This is important to know, because if only one person can attend treatment, we know that therapy can affect the mental health of the dyad and of the family system.

This is just one step in learning how, and why, and for whom these treatments work. We continue to need more research in this area because children will continue to experience traumatic events, and they deserve effective treatments.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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