Youth Eastside Services uses therapy to build ‘solid anchor’ between parents and children

Sherry’s child Martin Chin loves to draw, but a year or so ago, he developed an annoying new habit.

When a 3-year-old tried to form a smooth arc of a circle, for example, he didn’t have the skills to draw it as accurately as he imagined it in his head. I exploded in a fit of anger.

“It was going to kind of flip,” Martin Chen recalls.

The boy – who has a twin sister and is now 4 years old – is precocious, with a keen desire to know and understand the world around him (the Seattle Times does not use the boy’s name to protect his privacy). But he was endlessly frustrated. Sometimes, he would ask Martin Chen to paint for him because he “couldn’t do it perfect enough”. She described the ideal behavior of a family pediatrician, who recommended a behavioral intervention for families called parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT).

The advice led Martin Chen and her husband, Yi Chen, to Youth Eastside Services, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of evidence-based therapies, substance abuse treatment and education programs for youth and families in East King County. It was early 2021, before vaccines were widely available, and YES said they could perform telemedicine on Saturdays, fitting Martin Chen’s strict schedule as a high school teacher.

“They usually notice parent-child interaction, so it will be a little more difficult from a distance,” said Martin Chen, who lives in Sammamish. “But we can do it. They were really trying to adapt.”

Martin Chen was having a problem of her own with feeling confident about parenting. Most of her extended family was away – Martin Chen from Kansas. She did not feel that she had family wisdom to derive from it. Growing up, she was never responsible for taking care of siblings or cousins.

Chen, who grew up in China and grew up with his younger siblings, was more confident in his approach to upbringing. But he had different assumptions than Martin Chen’s about how to raise their children. And when their son exploded — he threw toys or melted into tears — neither of them knew how to respond. They were concerned that their son was not learning how to deal with certain challenges, and that they did not have the skills to help him regulate his emotions.

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They began working with Kristen Pace, an early childhood behavioral health therapist at YES, who watched them interact with their children via video. Since Martin and Chen primarily speak to their children in Chinese, one of them explains to Pace in English what the rest of the family is talking about.

Telemedicine isn’t perfect, but the family found a rhythm after a few monitoring sessions. Pace will train the couple on how to use a variety of parenting skills. Martin Chen and Chen were asking Pace questions. Then they do troubleshooting.

Martin Chen’s natural paternal inclinations were more permissive, while Chen’s were more reliable. But the couple found the cure for both of their ideas. Most importantly, Pace gave them new tools for dealing with tough moments, like bedtime chaos.

Chen and Martin Chen agreed that one of the most important takeaways is the concept of “private time” between children and their parents. This idea involves structured five-minute interactions. A parent introduces their children to a number of open, creative activities, such as playing with Lego or drawing. The child chooses what he wants to do, and then leads the playtime. Parents imitate or encourage their children, but don’t ask them instructive questions or direct them.

“Children don’t feel in control in their daily lives. We tell them, ‘You have to go to school, you have to eat your vegetables,'” Pace said. “We find these little pockets where we can increase [their sense of control] It actually reduces the big behaviors that appear.”

Families who work with Pace raise concerns about serious issues, such as divorce, family separation, or difficulty moving to school. In general, transitions are difficult for young children, who often show their emotions through tantrums or misbehavior. The added layer of the COVID-19 pandemic has left room for more disruption than usual: For example, Martin Chen and Chen’s family moved from California to Seattle due to the pandemic. Their children turned to the nursery several times.

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Helping families develop secure and stable relationships gives children a “solid foundation” amid so much uncertainty, Pace said.

Early intervention before unhealthy behaviors become ingrained in children can help children develop positive lifelong skills. Research shows that the kind of sensitive parenting that Martin Chen and Chen learn helps children foster healthy relationships with others in their lives — and reduces the risk of depression, anxiety, conduct disorder and aggression in childhood.

YES is one of 13 nonprofit organizations participating in the Seattle Times Fund’s Campaign for Those Who Need Help. The organization was founded in 1968 – it was called Heads Up at the time – as a way to help young people who were using drugs. It has since expanded to offer a wide range of mental health and behavioral services, many of which are covered by insurance. About 35% of YES clients use Medicaid to pay for services; The agency does not reject families who do not have insurance, or who cannot pay for services. In 2020, the agency offered its services in 15 languages; 53% of young people who use YES services are people of color.

In Washington, youth mental health concerns have reached crisis levels during the pandemic; In March, Governor Jay Inslee declared a youth mental health crisis.

Like many nonprofits, YES has scaled back in-person services following government orders to stay at home. Through the Early Childhood Behavioral Health Program, for example, YES served 182 families in 2019 — but only 81 families in 2020. The program has worked with 118 families so far this year, Pace said. In all of its programs in 2020, YES reached more than 24,000 people, including 4,822 children, teens, and young adults who received direct services.

David W. Downing, chief executive of YES, said the agency is trying to ramp up its services, and is returning to some in-person therapy sessions. But most of its services stay away from families of young children who are not eligible for the coronavirus vaccination.

Eastern Youth Services

Your dollars at work

Youth Eastside services serve people from birth to age 22, and their families, through a variety of behavioral health services. The agency offers evidence-based mental health care, substance abuse treatment and education programs.

$25 Helps two families receive the Parent-Child Interactive Therapy Guide (PCIT) in their native language.

$50 Help pay a gift card reward for a young man in recovery from achieving his sobriety goal.

$100 dollars Help a teen experiencing suicidal thoughts recover by scheduling an intake assessment.

$ 200 Helps children learn healthy coping skills by participating in an in-school presentation facilitated by a YES licensed therapist.

For information:

Downing said the consequences of the pandemic on young children — how a lack of socialization and routine, for example, affected behavior and learning — may be hard to pin down for at least a few years.

So far, he said, many of the children he’s seen undergoing YES programs during the pandemic have “have done fairly well and the prognosis is probably fairly high and strong.” But he cautioned that “other children did not, in fact, respond as well”.

“Are they going to come back from that?” He said. “It’s hard to tell.”

Back home, Martin Chen and Chen noticed a significant improvement in their children’s nighttime routine and eating habits. Getting on the same page about how to discipline children, and how to play with them in a way that gives children agency, also helped resolve the tension in their marriage.

Their son moved from circles to drawing cars, tractors, and missile ships. The last diagram reads like a work in progress rather than trying to perfect: he’s drawn a series of green cars, each with differently shaped bodies and windows.

“Now he does everything himself,” said Chen. “Every day he designs at least 10 different types of cars.” “I really admire his curiosity.”

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