Therapy Sessions in Homeless Shelters May Offer Benefits for Parents and Children

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Therapy Sessions in Homeless Shelters May Offer Benefits for Parents and Children    

Jim Windell


           Many years ago, I conducted weekly parenting classes for women in a shelter for abused women. It was a rewarding experience and the mothers, who had to hide out in a shelter where they and their children would be safe from the abuser in the family, were appreciative of the chance to talk about parenting and the hazards of living with someone who was violent.

           While the women who attended these sessions enjoyed the support I provided, it wasn’t always so easy for me. For one thing, the mothers who showed up for the group were ever changing as the women in the shelter had to return home or find a new place to live. Furthermore, the women needed more time and attention than they could get from weekly sessions to accept that living with a violent man would likely have long-term consequences for their children.

           I wasn’t aware at the time of anyone else who was holding parenting sessions in a shelter, nor did I know of any research that had been done on such programs. I’m not even sure there is any such research today.  

           However, I recently ran across an article about short-term therapy sessions with parents and their children in homeless shelters.

           In this study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers from Florida International University partnered with Lotus House in Miami, one of the largest women’s homeless shelters in the U.S. One hundred forty-four families, mostly consisting of a mother and one or more children, who ranged in age from 18 months to five years were included in the study. Shelter staff worked on a daily basis with the families to build trust with the mothers – many of whom weren’t seeking therapy – and 99% of them agreed to take part in the study.

           Paulo Graziano, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida International University, and his team trained Lotus House staff to provide two types of evidence-based therapy to the mothers and their children in weekly sessions over three or four months. Half of the participants received Parent-Child Interaction Therapy while the other half received Child-Parent Psychotherapy.  

           Parent-Child Interaction Therapy includes positive parenting techniques to reduce critical statements and negative interactions with children during observed play sessions. Child-Parent Psychotherapy uses play and language to help identify and address traumatic triggers, provide emotional support and offer assistance with daily living issues.

           Mothers in both therapy groups reported reductions in their stress and their children’s post-traumatic stress symptoms. The mothers also made more positive statements during observed play sessions. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy also helped reduce children's behavior problems. This may make this approach more effective in a shelter setting, the article noted.   

           According to Paulo Graziano, “We’re excited to find that evidence-based parenting interventions can be implemented within a shelter setting with wonderful benefits to the mothers and children. I think more community-university partnerships are essential towards addressing the mental health needs of our most vulnerable families and children in a setting where they normally wouldn’t receive it.”

           The study concluded that with adequate training and supervision, homeless shelter staff may not need mental health degrees to provide effective therapy. Graziano, his team and Lotus House are working on a larger randomized trial to see if the successes from this pilot study can be replicated at other homeless shelters. Graziano says that he hopes that other researchers will conduct their own studies.

           More than two million children in the U.S. experience homelessness every year. Homeless children face heightened challenges from such things as poverty, traumatic experiences, mental illness and behavioral problems. Previous research has also found that homelessness is associated with increased parental frustration and negative parenting behaviors, including aggression. Those issues can be exacerbated by the parents’ chronic medical, mental health or substance use issues and their own histories of trauma.

            Constance Collins, president of the Sundari Foundation, which operates Lotus House, said the project has produced dramatic results. “It was a game changer that transformed homelessness into a window of opportunity for our children,” she said. “We’re sharing our experiences with other homeless shelters across the country with hopes that critically needed therapy will become more available to homeless parents and their children.”

            To read the study, find it with this reference:

 Graziano, P. A., Spiegel, J. A., Hayes, T., & Arcia, E. (2023). Early intervention for families experiencing homelessness: A pilot randomized trial comparing two parenting programs. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 91(4), 192.

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