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Child-Parent Relationship Therapy: 5 Tips to Help Families

parent and child in therapy
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Published on: 12/08/2023
Last Updated: 12/08/2023
9 minute read

Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) can help families strengthen their bonds and overcome the issues that separate them. With guidance from a licensed professional, CPRT therapy gives families a structured environment to address the problems affecting their relationship.

CPRT is a complex discipline, however, parents, children, and the connections between them are diverse and multifaceted. Additionally, each child-parent relationship is unique—as are the issues they hope to work on through therapy, which makes it difficult to figure out how to build rapport with clients.

Nonetheless, there are some key tips and techniques CPRT therapists can use to help families work together to foster positive, caring relationships. From setting collaborative goals to catering situationally-specific interventions, we’re covering five ways to help patients get the most out of CPRT.  

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#1 Collaborative Goal-Setting for Therapists

Goal-setting is one of the first steps toward making progress in therapy of any kind. Identifying clear, achievable objectives—such as easing a child’s nervousness or building trust between family members—can help determine the topics and tactics to address in sessions.

It can be important to involve everyone (children, parents, and therapists alike) when determining specific aims for CPRT. Add collaborative goal-setting into your therapist protocol, as it gives patients a sense of autonomy and more incentive to follow their treatment and take it seriously. Collectively set goals also provide a common language, understanding, and frame of mind to work with, enabling more trust and cooperation between everyone involved.1

While involving everyone in goal-setting is important, it’s also key for therapists to guide the process. Patients can have a tendency to focus on rigidly defined or exceptionally lofty goals that are unrealistic or unachievable.2 For instance, parents could be inclined to choose objectives such as:

  • Having their child listen to their every command without resistance
  • Compelling their child into activities or programs that they’re not interested in
  • Pushing their child to overcome an issue or trauma that they find particularly difficult

While such objectives may be set with the best intentions, they’re not necessarily in the complete interests of the child as a patient. Thus, therapists should arbitrate between parents and children to come up with productive, mutually agreeable goals for CPRT. 

#2 Assessing Progress in Therapy

With common goals and shared trust, families can make concerted efforts toward improving the issues they wish to address in CPRT. Therapy is an ongoing process and families won’t reach their objectives overnight. They should, however, make continual and measurable progress toward their goals.

CPRT therapists, thus, should be able to determine how well families are moving toward their objectives. Hence, they need reliable metrics to apply to their patients. Some key ways to measure progress in CPRT include:3

  • Symptom reduction – Whether it’s lower levels of animosity or a higher degree of understanding between family members, noticeable, positive changes in behavior are a key clue that CPRT is having its intended effect.
  • Remission of disorder – For some more outward issues, such as childhood social withdrawal, progress can mean overcoming the problem altogether. If, for instance, a child with social anxiety integrates themself amongst their peers and no longer feels the need for isolation, the issue can be considered in remission—meaning they’re on the path toward their objective.
  • Overcoming functional impairmentFunctional impairment refers to a patient’s inability to complete daily tasks due to their underlying issues. In CPRT, this may materialize as a child with severe separation anxiety who can't go to school without throwing a tantrum. Thus, overcoming such behaviors and functioning through routine days is a key mark of headway for such patients.

In conjunction with these metrics, therapists can practice measurement-based care to assess and better treat their patients. Measurement-based care involves routinely collecting patient feedback during therapy sessions and using the data to inform future decisions about their treatment.4

Checking in with patients to see if they think they’re benefiting from CPRT can give therapists a better sense of their progress than they’d get from their own evaluations. In fact, recent studies indicate that therapists assume their patients are making improvements at up to twice the self-reported rate.5 So, in order to keep close tabs on therapeutic progress, review key metrics—but also ask patients how they feel they’re doing in your sessions.

#3 Navigating Difficult Conversations with Skill

Therapy is a place to address deep and often painful underlying psychological issues that can affect the very psyche of individual parents and children alike. By its nature, the CPRT model involves asking and answering difficult questions that can make many patients feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, thus making it important to understand what to do when a client shuts down in therapy.

Hence, it’s essential for CPRT therapists to create a safe therapeutic space in which their patients can talk about their problems freely without fear of judgment or repercussions. To create an environment defined by open, effective communication, consider:

  • Framing treatment within the context of patients’ lives by referencing the specifics of their situation and issues they wish to address
  • Simplifying complex terms and ideas so no one is confused and everyone has a common language to discuss their feelings
  • Practicing patience as patients work through the complexity of their personal issues on their own timeline, rather than forcing them to open up immediately

It can be particularly difficult for children to share in CPRT sessions as they don’t have a pragmatic sense of how therapy can help them. Thus, therapists use a wide variety of child-centric techniques to uncover essential information, including:6

  • Monitoring children as they interact with their parents and offering advice based on their observations
  • Child centered play therapy or play-based therapy that can calm children’s nerves and give them the confidence to open up to their therapist
  • Incorporating other key authority figures that the child confides in, such as teachers, into a session

Having children openly and honestly express their thoughts and feelings can be crucial for successful CPRT, so developing an effective means of connecting with them should be a primary goal for therapists.

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#4 Promoting Family Collaboration in Therapy

CPRT therapists aren’t necessarily another member of the family. They should, however, be trusted figures that any of their patients can confide in for advice. Furthermore, they should act as mediators between parents and children by remaining impartial and seeking only to provide the guidance they need to address their issues. 

One of a CPRT therapist’s main aims should be to foster empathy and understanding within families. They should encourage patients to see the world from the other’s point of view and acknowledge their unique circumstances, challenges, and ideas. 

Numerous psychological studies have found empathy to be a driving force behind positive treatment outcomes. It’s been shown to foster therapeutic alliances between patients and helps in training them to work together towards common goals.7

#5 Tailoring Interventions to Client Needs

No person or family goes to CPRT for the same reasons; thus, no two treatment plans should be exactly the same. Therapy should be catered to the specific needs and desires of the patient, rather than administered via a one-size-fits-all philosophy. 

Interventions into different behaviors and attitudes, for example, should be meticulously tailored to address your patients’ unique circumstances. The tactics and techniques used to tackle family issues are largely situationally dependent, meaning interventions can be suited to deal with:8

  • Problems with substance abuse
  • Anxiety about future plans
  • Education or employment concerns
  • Adjusting to marriage, pregnancy, and other forms of familial expansion
  • Behavioral management
  • Improving communication
  • Psychological disorders, such as depression

By setting goals and facilitating open communication with their clients, therapists can hone in on the issues that their patients can work on. Then, they can develop catered intervention plans suited to their specific needs. For teenagers engaging in risky or antisocial behavior, for instance, interventions may be more psychological in nature and involve delving into the root causes behind their actions.

Interventions for younger children, however, often involve helping them stimulate latent social or intellectual development. Such interventions are more emotional and physical in nature, often involving games and other interactive activities.9

So, in essence, it can be crucial for therapists to cater interventions to specific clientele as not all techniques work across the board. CPRT practitioners should assess their patients’ unique situations, select age and issue-appropriate strategies to implement in their treatment, and fine-tune their approach to optimize patient progress.

Explore the MFT Programs at Alliant

There are many pros and cons of being a marriage and family therapist, but CPRT is a fascinating and rewarding field where you can help families come together to work on their issues and develop happy, healthy relationships. If you’re looking to kickstart your CPRT career, Alliant International University offers two outstanding ways to get the ball rolling.

Our master’s in marriage and family therapy program can help you develop the essential skills necessary to address the underlying issues affecting any caregiver/parent-child relationship. This two-year degree can be completed online or in person and gives you the opportunity to learn about key disciplines such as group therapy, trauma and crisis intervention and, of course, child-parent therapy.

For an even more in-depth perspective on the field, consider the doctorate in marital and family therapy at Alliant. This advanced degree can be completed in as little as three years and can expose you to crucial psychiatric concepts such as counseling theory and instructional methods. 

If you’re looking to make a difference in the lives of others by becoming a CPRT, family, or marital therapist, choose Alliant to help propel you forward into your desired field.


Sources: 

  1. “Collaborative goal setting: what works for whom in therapeutic relationships?.” Child Outcomes Research Consortium. December 7, 2021. https://www.corc.uk.net/news-and-blogs/collaborative-goal-setting-what-…. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  2. “How to Set Goals for Your Therapy Clients.” Psychology Today. April 23, 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thinking-about-becoming-a-psych…. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  3. “How to Measure Improvement in Psychotherapy: 5 Approaches.” Psychology Today. May 5, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stress-relief/201905/how-measur…. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  4. “Measurement-based care is giving psychologists and their patients a better picture of treatment progress.” Psychology Today. June 1, 2023. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/06/measurement-based-care-patients-tre…. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  5. “Measurement-based care is giving psychologists and their patients a better picture of treatment progress.” Psychology Today. June 1, 2023. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/06/measurement-based-care-patients-tre…. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  6. “Therapy to Improve Children’s Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control. March 8, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/parent-behavior-therapy.html.  Accessed November 10, 2023.
  7. “Empathy in Couple and Family Therapy.” Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. December 10, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_177-1. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  8. “Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry. January, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7001353/. Accessed November 10, 2023. 
  9. “Favorite Therapeutic Activities for Children, Adolescents, and Families: Practitioners Share Their Most Effective Interventions.” Liana Lowenstein. 2022. https://www.lianalowenstein.com/e-booklet.pdf.  Accessed November 10, 2023. 

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