An important study was published a couple of months ago in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry titled “Psychosocial treatment efficacy for disruptive behavior problems in very young children: A Meta-analytic study.” The first author is Boston University professor Dr. Jonathan Comer. This study of studies examined 36 studies investigating 3,042 children. The high points from this study support the headline for this entry.
Backdrop for the study
The authors first reviewed some key findings in the research literature:
• About 10% of preschoolers meet criteria for a disruptive behavior disorder. These conditions exist across cultures and are associated with debilitating outcomes (e.g., profound family disruption, continued psychopathology).
• The rates of psychotropic medication treatments for preschoolers has experienced between a two and five fold increase despite the fact that “…controlled evaluations of the efficacy of antipsychotic treatment for early child disruptive behavior problems have not been conducted…(and) potential adverse effects of antipsychotic treatment in youth, including metabolic, endocrine, and cerebrovascular risks, have been well documented.”
• While only a minority of children with disruptive behavior problems have ever gotten evidence-based treatment, there is evidence of a decreasing trend of kids getting needed mental health care.
When considering if interventions work, researchers calculate an effect size. A “0” score means no effect; .2 means a small benefit; .5 is a moderate benefit and .8 represents a large benefit (what one well known statistician described as “whopping”).
• The average effect size was .8! Remember, this is across 36 studies and more than 3K kids.
∫• The largest effect sizes were found for treatments that took a behavioral approach (see the commentary section below).
• There is evidence that many treatments offered to youth with disruptive behavior problems are not the ones with the most evidence supporting their use; moreover, when these treatments are compared to evidence-based behavioral treatments there is a large difference in favor of the behavioral treatments. As the authors note “…widely used approaches rarely show support.”
• “Treatment effects were consistent across samples of varying compositions of racial/ethnic minorities.”
• “These findings provide robust quantitative support for consensus guidelines suggesting that psychosocial treatments alone should constitute first line treatment for early disruptive behavior problems. Against a backdrop of reduced reliance on psychosocial treatments in this age range, and increased reliance on pharmacological treatments in the absence of controlled safety and efficacy evaluations, the present findings also underscore the urgency of improving dissemination efforts for supported psychosocial treatment options, and removing systematic barriers to psychosocial care for affected youth.”
• “Roughly 50% of U.S. counties have no psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker.”
Readers of this blog will note how much this study is consistent with a primary point I’ve been trying to make (and quoting from my own previous entry):
“Psychological problems are akin to medical problems in so many ways: they are nearly universal by the time a kid reaches adulthood (about 90%), most of the time they are treatable in a short period of time, they are easier to treat the earlier they are caught and, if they are left unchecked, can cause very stressful and costly consequences. However, unlike medical problems, only about 20% of youth who need evidence-based mental health care get it.”
This is profound social injustice and it needs to stop!
What can you do to help?
• Ask your pediatrician if s/he screens all children for mental health problems in her/his practice on well visits. If not, ask him or her to reconsider. If s/he says that s/he doesn’t screen because s/he would have no one to refer such children to, make a counterpoint and a suggestion. The counterpoint: parents deserve to know if their child could benefit from a mental health evaluation. So, even if no help can be found, the problem has been upgraded. The suggestion: contact your state’s psychological association and ask if they can help to identify a provider to whom your pediatrician may refer; it is highly likely that that they will be passionate in their efforts to assist. Should you convince your pediatrician to grow in this way, a quickly administered pediatric mental health screening tool is available in the public domain (i.e., it’s free): Pediatric Symptom Checklist.
• If your child’s defiant or disruptive behavior is causing anyone distress, get him or her help for it today. Besides tapping your state’s psychological association, you may also try here .
• Ask the mental health professional you interview at least two questions:
√ “In what types of problems do you specialize?” (This is a better question than “do you specialize in working with children?”) If you hear kids listed, that’s good. If not, ask if s/he knows of someone who does. Of course you may live in a community where this person is your only choice. So, you can ask if s/he has had success treating this problem.
√ Once you identify a viable clinician, ask “You obviously can’t know if my child has Oppositional Defiant Disorder at this point, but what is your treatment approach when you have diagnosed a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder(ODD) and that’s the only problem?” There are synonymous terms for a good answer: “behavior modification,” “parent training,” (an unfortunate term in my view but it’s used), “behaviorally oriented family therapy,” and “behavioral treatment.” The clinician might also name some specific treatment manuals/approaches such as “Parent-Child Interaction Therapy,” “Incredible Years,” “Helping the Noncompliant Child,” “The Triple P-Positive Parenting Program,” and “The Defiant Child Program.” I would be very concerned if the first line of approach were a different one, including the use of medication treatment.
Just to give you an idea of what you might be in for, when I have a child who has ODD, and that’s the only problem, the treatment phase of the work (i.e., not including the evaluation phase), takes 8 sessions. In my own practice this cures the problem over 90% of the time. And, the two most common reasons I’ve found it doesn’t work are (1) the parent(s) don’t apply the techniques, usually because of personal pain and limitations or (2) there was another or different problem interacting with the ODD (e.g, the child really was suffering from an emerging case of bipolar disorder, the child was privately sniffing glue on a regular basis, a parent was substance dependent but tried to hide that). If a child truly has just ODD, and the parent does the techniques, it works.
The truth I/m reviewing here still seems to be too much of a secret, at least from most parents, teachers and pediatricians I’ve known. This leaves kids, parents and families suffering needlessly. As Jerry Garcia once noted: :Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”
In closing let me share that you can also find multiple behavioral strategies in my parenting book as well as suggestions for identifying, and affording, quality mental health care.