CMU center generates solutions for family problems

CMU's Center for Children, Families and Communities uses proactive, positive-based therapy to correct problems that can tear down families.
When a family stops functioning effectively and peacefully, it's not just the household that takes the hit; the entire community suffers.

But within Central Michigan University's psychology department, the Center for Children, Families and Communities is working to slow that damaging ripple effect. The center strives to correct what officials there call "mental health disparities," by blowing past stigmas, reaching out to the hard-to-reach and using proven psychological and communication tools to rebuild the ways families interact, guiding them from dysfunction and frustration to cohesion and mental happiness over terms both short and long.

Larissa Niec is the co-director at the Center for Children, Families and Communities. She notes the center's work is based on outreach, establishing lines of communication with struggling families in a Michigan region that, in some areas, is rural in nature. Geography alone poses a challenge, Niec says.

"Many families are in rural communities or are minorities. Some may not have access to mental health care. We narrow that gap," she says. "Our research and innovation reduces those barriers. In some populations, there is a stigma on asking for help or going to a clinic. But they'll talk with elders, pastors or teachers, so we know we can give them mental health first-aid."

Niec and her team are akin to first-responders for struggling families. And by "struggling," she means a family model where communication has broken down, nobody is listening to one another or learned helplessness has set in, resulting in a family dynamic that isn't good for anyone. At the core of the center's approach to undoing the damage is parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT). There, Niec says, the prevention format coalesces between working with agencies and securing grants, and addressing the family unit's problematic parenting situations head-on.

"We have to make sure everyone involved is seeing the problem," she says. "With the therapy, we might have a child, ranging from 2 years old to 7, who may have been kicked out of daycare or has other conduct problems. We work with the parents and child, as they interact in a room. We have a bug in the parent's ear and a therapist is in the other room, guiding them through positive-based interaction with the child.

"It is support-based; it's not about results. What ends up being the cause of the problem? It's usually a temperament of the child that doesn't match the parents' style. That can escalate. We step in, stop it and change the parents' reaction to the behavior. One simple thing we do is turn that around."

Parenting is tricky work. Just ask anyone with kids. And when that child-parent dynamic becomes a strained mess, the tension hangs in the air like a kite. The Center for Children, Families and Communities understands that during that critical age between 2 and 7, that is the window where children--and parents--can re-learn positive behavior that has been lost. Niec's team boils away that overwhelmed feeling that can paralyze parents, by examining behavior interaction and modifying it effectively to promote positivity.

"The earlier the age we get to the child, the better," she says. "Parents are their world. When the child is older? Not so much."

It can sometimes be a big truck to turn around in a very small space, and doing so requires not only structure and expert analysis of a situation between parent and child, but funding and effective community interaction as well.

Ignacio David Acevedo is the center's other co-director, specializing in the community-based component of the work it does. And while the center's top goal is to make the broadest mental health impact as possible, he also recognizes securing grants and working in unison with community resources is vital to upholding their mission. He spearheads an approach that brings real treatment to families in rural communities, networks with key community partners on behalf of families and writes and secures grants for local courts to generate specialized therapy.

One example Acevedo highlights is multi-systemic therapy. If PCIT on Niec's side is the successful therapy of choice for kids ages 7 or younger, MST is its teen-aged older sibling. Acevedo says MST specifically targets adolescent-aged kids with severe or violent behavior shortcomings. The target communities are usually in Montcalm and Isabella counties.  

"We are the community arm. We are a think tank," he says. "Do they need a grant? Us to design a program? Train members of the community? We offer human services. Anyone who walks in--rural, poor, immigrant--we use our experience as a positive."

"It truly is a great opportunity to share university resources. That's what we try to achieve."

John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.

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