- Melanie Wells
Sam Sits Down With NYC-Parents In Action
This interview was originally published as Ask The Expert: Samantha Altman Gardner on the NYC-PIA Q&A Corner.
Almost all parents eventually confront one of those days, when we’re frazzled, out of patience and wondering how child-rearing can be so hard when we thought it would come naturally. The rewards of parenting are deeply felt, but so are the frustrations. In April, NYC-Parents in Action had an informal Q and A with Samantha Altman Gardner, Spence School class of 2008, and former NYC-PIA Teen Scene panelist. Samantha spoke frankly about her own tough parenting experience and how it led her to found Happypillar, a support application for parents where AI and technology are used to provide practical, accessible family help. Here is her story:
Tell us about the beginning, what in your parenting experience inspired you to found Happypillar?
My older son Winston was just losing his mind all the time. Everything I did was wrong. Every food I offered was disgusting. Every toy frustrated him. Bedtime, bath time, getting dressed –everything made him mad. Whining turned to tantrums, it felt unrelenting and I wasn’t handling it well. I tried negotiations, arguments; I let his whining get to me. I screamed at him, he screamed back. Many nights ended with both of us in tears. He was 4 years old, and a year earlier, in the height of the 2020 pandemic turmoil, we’d brought home his little brother Remy. Between school openings and closings, a new sibling, and a stressful environment for everyone, we probably should have expected he might need professional help to regulate and thrive. Through a therapist friend, I found a practical approach that focused on both parent and child, where the clinician observed the family, then coached the parent on using strategies and techniques. It was revolutionary for us. I knew that other families could benefit from this type of approach, so I partnered with a brilliant friend of mine to figure out how to make behavioral therapy easily accessible, via technology, to a broad range of parents.
So, what is Happypillar? How does it work?
Happypillar is an app. It trains parents in evidence-based methods typically used by play therapists. The research suggests that spending 5 minutes every day with your child, employing these specific strategies, will have lasting positive effects on the child’s mental wellness, behavior, and emotional development. But in addition to training parents in these skills, as any book or course could, Happypillar also reminds parents to engage in the daily practice; tracks progress on the parent’s skills and the child’s development; and makes personalized recommendations for additional exercises, to support the goals of each individual family. The real benefit of this app, and what makes it so much like the actual therapy I did with Winston, is that, much like the language learning app Duolingo, Happypillar can listen to your daily sessions with your child and give immediate feedback on how effectively you’re implementing the play therapy skills.
When I saw a clinician in person, she’d give me this exact feedback on what I was saying and how I was interacting so that our 5-minute practices at home would deliver maximum effectiveness and benefit. Of course, I would have loved to have her observe every single interaction, every day. But Happypillar can listen and give that personalized, instant feedback. With the help of our clinical director and a team of clinical advisors, we’ve created a voice and language AI that replicates therapist coaching and feedback. This is a tool that families who are already in therapy can use between sessions, or families that maybe aren’t quite in need of weekly therapy can use to benefit their families’ emotional regulation skills, social emotional skills, and even overall stress levels.
Do parents use the app with their kids?
Not exactly. Parents use the app on their own, to learn the tools and techniques of play therapy via videos, quizzes and practice exercises. Then, after this training, the parent is reminded, once a day, to do the daily session – kind of like daily meditation, regular mindfulness exercises or even brushing one’s teeth. The parent then sits down to play alongside their child, while Happypillar is running on their phone off to the side. The parent and child play and interact using the therapy tools, and at the end of that session the parent gets a real-time analysis from Happypillar of how the interaction went and how skilled they were at implementing the therapeutic techniques. There are also regular check-ins so the parent can log how things are going and the family can see their progress and how incredibly effective this method can be. Kids don’t use the app, but they definitely do ask their parents for daily Happypillar time.
How do you know that these methods are actually beneficial? Most parents want to make sure they do no harm to their kids. Do you have mental health clinicians working on Happypillar?
Our clinical director has over 10 years of experience working with parents and children: she’s a licensed clinical social worker and has certification in parent-child interaction therapy. In her own practice as a therapist, she saw what methods worked and what parents needed to stay active with their own emotional work. The therapeutic modalities that Happypillar is designed after are evidence-based and thoroughly researched. And they’re not recent either. Things that we’re drawing from, like parent-child interaction therapy, mindfulness, trauma-informed care strategies – those things were established decades ago and have been researched for different age groups, across cultures, across languages. We draw from multiple, thoroughly researched, therapeutic elements. Parent-child relationships in and of themselves have a lot of research behind them – research on the kinds of parenting strategies considered effective in behavior management, effective in building healthy relationships, and effective in helping kids coregulate with parents.
There’s research to support that kids learn and develop through play, which is what our app is encouraging. So really, at every level, whether it’s the therapeutic modalities we’re drawing from or the relational interactions that we’re teaching parents to use, or even the bigger picture idea of helping kids by empowering parents with new strategies, at all of those different levels we have research supporting what we’re doing.
What about the technology aspect? Is it wise to use AI with your children? What safeguards are in place to protect families? And what’s the benefit of using technology over human interaction?
The goal here is not to replace human interaction, but rather to encourage more of it. The heart of Happypillar is encouraging parents to spend more time with their kids, and to do it with focused coaching and guidance toward a practice that is evidence-proven to make a difference.
As far as the AI, that’s the exciting part here – we use technology to expand the reach of this support so more people can access it. Every aspect of the application, all of the technology, was designed and refined and tested with Chloe, our clinical director, and with the guidance of our expert clinical advisory board.
Happypillar uses a combination of natural language processing (NLP) techniques, such as classification and semantic textual similarity, to analyze parents’ verbalizations. Over 14,000 minutes of proprietary data were used to train these tools. This process mirrors how therapists code parent-child interactions in live sessions. To ensure accuracy, our team of licensed child therapists are consistently reviewing our system to make sure it functions accurately.
We take privacy seriously and handle parent-child data as securely as private medical records. We use industry-leading cryptography and follow HIPAA and SOC 2 compliance guidelines to securely process and store conversation data. Sadly, most mental health startups are not doing this.
What parents in our community can benefit from Happypillar?
Right now, Happypillar is developmentally appropriate for parents of kids age 2-7. In the medium term, we will continue to focus on parent-child behavioral therapy and expand into modalities for kids 8+ and teens, and eventually for couples and families as a whole. But the current app is an early childhood intervention.
NYC kids are known to be some of the savviest, smartest, and most mature kids anywhere – do you think this approach will be effective for this group?
I grew up in NYC and attended one of its independent schools, and it’s funny, when I started the actual therapy that Happypillar was based on, I was skeptical. I definitely believed my kid was too smart to be changed by a 5-minute play session and some simple switches in how I spoke. I questioned whether it was even worth our time – but I was wrong. The work parents do using Happypillar daily, actually rewrites kids’ neural pathways and creates a more resilient, regulated child who will thrive, even in our unsettled world. I think New York City kids are some of the most resilient kids I’ve ever seen. They have to be. But reinforcing that resilience with emotional regulation, pro-social skills, healthy attachment – the benefits that can come from consistent use of Happypillar – is still important, even for whipsmart New York kids. We’re really lucky to be building something that can support both kids and the parents guiding them, using the power of technology to fine-tune and personalize the experience, and strengthening both as they face inevitable bumps along the way.