Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy — a fan’s perspective

I put this page on my website because when I found this therapy model — Dan Hughes’ Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy — many puzzle pieces fell into place about counseling troubled children at an emotional level.  Here are some examples of questions I was able to answer:

Q: What should I do with the foster/adoptive/natal parents out in the waiting room?

A: Bring them in as co-therapists!

Q: How do I handle kids’ stubborn resistance?

A: Honor and accept it!  It once served to protect them.

Q: Why can’t she act her age?

A: She is.  She’s acting the age she was when she got stuck needing help with her overwhelming emotions.

Q: What if a parent’s attitude* seems like part of the problem?

A: They started out with the best of dreams, and now are doing the best they can given the resources they were given. Give them the same acceptance, empathy and limit-setting you give anyone else.

Q: What if this kid is totally obnoxious?

Even if he tries to prove he’s obnoxious, you have to find something good about him, and not give up like everyone else.

And so on. Finally I had answers and a protocol that let me quickly help with wounded children’s inner lives.  I could take on difficult family cases I used to pass up because they seemed impossible.

“My husband’s a pilot and he doesn’t get this counter-intuitive approach.  But he follows my lead, so it works okay.”

— adoptive mother

I am by now certified as a DDP therapist, consultant (telephone or face-to-face) and trainer.  I serve as secretary on the board of the DDP Institute.  Trainings and presentations for staffs and parent groups are listed under another button.  A second button lists the contents of a DDP training curriculum.

From a Midwest therapist consultee following taped session feedback:

“Thanks.  I will spend more time supporting the parent.  Now that you mentioned it, the dad [in session video tape] is able to intellectualize the situation and ‘do’ the right thing, but his resentment may be coming through.  He would likely benefit from time to process what he is experiencing.  You were very kind in your feedback.”


Occasionally parents come in with their own histories so stuck they need help resolving them before they can help their child.  That is because the kid’s dysregulation and escalation start to trigger old feelings in the parent.  Children don’t need to know their parent’s history or issues.  They just learn that the parent has some button they can push any time and feel a rush of making something happen in the world.  (A delayed, distorted version of infants’ learning early efficacy by seeing adults responding to them, adult faces attending to them.)

So we back up and help integrate the parent’s memories until those old issues diminish enough to be out of reach of her child. Here’s a case in which the constant parent-child conflict resolved without ever bringing in the child or therapy:

One adoptive parent came in for the initial parent session really steamed up over her teenage son’s unfair treatment of her — rude, rejecting, not listening, acting dismissive.  Mother felt it keenly and took it personally. They had lots of competitive conflicts. Mother asked me to see them together to fix things.

I asked mother Who first made you feel like that, ever?

“My dad! He was so unfair! He was a drunk and would spank us for no reason, just for nothing, on a whim! I hated that!!”  Her intensity took me by surprise.

I wondered out loud whether, after leaving home, this mother had made a lifetime promise to herself that she would never ever let anyone treat her like that again. Ever!

“You’re damn right!” she agreed.

I then suggested that, before we try approaching the son with a new and healthy relationship, we might spend a session or two disconnecting her strong feelings from her past.  At least one person would no longer be always ready for a fight.

Mother paused, and I realized I had made a counseling mistake — I moved too quickly into solutions.  I expected her to walk out, saying, “It’s not about ME, it’s about HIM!”

But instead she said, “I’ve heard this before. Let’s do it.”

Four sessions later, using emotion-focused talking and some EMDR*, this mother had a new and compassionate perspective on her father, her adopted son, and herself.  She enjoyed some inner freedom from her former defensiveness.  She said things were already turning around at home, now that she was no longer invested in immediate justice during her son’s teenage manipulations.  Mother’s past was resolved enough to no longer be a hair-sensitive trigger.  She was free to shift to a long view of the fairly normal (but always too long) stage of teen opposition.  Her work allowed her to step out of fighting and simply be the parent he needed.

* Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – a quick treatment for specific traumas and emotional blocks.  Requires a basic training course.