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The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy Features YES Clients and Parents Sheri and Yi

Lidia Harding
Agency news Blog Early Childhood Behavioral Health Success Stories
YES parent child interactive therapy clients

Every year, The Seattle Times Fund for those in Need Campaign raises money for a group of 12 local nonprofit organizations and we at Youth Eastside Services (YES) are very grateful for the opportunity to participate in their 43nd year. Thanks to generous donors, last year the campaign exceeded its goal of $1.7 million and raised $3,431,447 with $128,230 donated to YES which helped support children, youth, and families struggling with mental health and substance use challenges.

Read below how donations such a these helped parents Sheri and Yi Martin-Chen access behavioral health services for support parenting their 3-year-old son.

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

By: Hannah Furfaro, The Seattle Times

Sheri Martin Chen’s toddler loves to draw, but a year or so ago, he developed a troubling new habit.

When the 3-year-old attempted to form the smooth arc of a circle, for example, he didn’t have the skills to draw it as neatly as he imagined it in his head. He’d burst into a temper tantrum.

“He would kind of flip out,” recalled Martin Chen.

The boy — who has a twin sister, and is now 4 years old — is precocious, with an intense desire to know and understand the world around him (The Seattle Times isn’t using the boy’s name to protect his privacy). But he was endlessly frustrated. Sometimes, he would ask Martin Chen to draw for him because he “couldn’t do it perfect enough.” She described the perfectionist behavior to the family’s 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 nonprofit that offers a variety of evidence-based therapies, substance use treatment and education programs to youth and families in East King County. It was early 2021, before vaccines were widely available, and YES said they could do remote therapy on Saturdays, which would accommodate Martin Chen’s rigid schedule as a high school teacher.

“Usually they observe the parent and the child interacting, and so it would be a little more difficult remotely,” said Martin Chen, who lives in Sammamish. “But we could do it. They were really trying to adapt.”

Martin Chen was having her own trouble feeling confident about parenting. Most of her extended family was far away — Martin Chen is from Kansas. And she didn’t feel like she had family wisdom to draw from. Growing up, she’d never been responsible for taking care of siblings or cousins.

Chen, who was raised in China and grew up with younger siblings, was more confident in his parenting style. But he had different assumptions than Martin Chen about how they’d raise their kids. And when their son erupted — throwing toys, or melting into tears — neither of them knew how to respond. They worried their son wasn’t learning how to cope with certain challenges, and that they didn’t have the skills to help him regulate his emotions.

They began working with Christine Pace, an early childhood behavioral health therapist at YES, who watched them interact with their children over video. Because Martin Chen and Chen speak to their children primarily in Chinese, one of them would explain to Pace in English what the rest of the family was talking about.

Remote therapy isn’t perfect, but the family found a rhythm after a few observation sessions. Pace would coach the couple on how to use a variety of parenting skills. Martin Chen and Chen would ask Pace questions. Then, they’d troubleshoot.

Martin Chen’s natural parenting tendencies were more permissive, while Chen’s were more authoritative. But the couple found the therapy inclusive of both their ideas. More importantly, Pace gave them new tools to handle difficult moments, like chaos at bedtime.

One of the most important takeaways, Chen and Martin Chen agreed, is the concept of “special time” between children and their parents. This idea involves structured five-minute interactions. A parent offers their child a number of open-ended, creative activities, like playing with Legos or drawing. The child chooses what they want to do, then leads the play time. Parents imitate or encourage their children, but don’t ask leading questions or direct them.

“Kids don’t get a sense of control in their day-to-day life. We tell them, ‘You have to go to school, you have to eat your vegetables,’” Pace said. “We’re finding these little pockets where we can increase [their sense of control] actually decreases the big behaviors that are coming out.”

Families who work with Pace bring concerns about serious issues, like divorce, family separation or trouble transitioning to school. In general, transitions are tough for young children, who often show their feelings through tantrums or misbehavior. The added layer of the COVID-19 pandemic left room for more disruption than usual: Martin Chen and Chen’s family, for instance, moved from California to Seattle because of the pandemic. Their children switched preschools several times.

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

Intervening early, before unhealthy behaviors become ingrained, can help children develop positive, lifelong skills. Research suggests the type of sensitive parenting Martin Chen and Chen learned helps children foster healthy relationships with other people in their lives — and decreases risk for depression, anxiety, conduct disorder and childhood aggression.

To learn more about how YES is supporting children, youth, and families during a national youth mental health crisis, continue on to The Seattle Times website to read the entire article.

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