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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What is Therapeutic Parenting?

You are probably an amazing "regular" parent. That may be part of what made you want to adopt in the first place. But then a traumatized child entered your family and your self confidence went down the tubes.

Our children think differently. They feel a lot. And most of the time their big feelings go straight into anger. They do not feel safe and do not view mother's as safe people who they can trust.

Parenting our kids can actually have joyous times if we learn how to connect with them.  We want them to feel safe and loved.

Empathy: It is just being able to get into their world and walk around in their shoes and feel what they feel. We will never know (unless experienced yourself) the depths of some of their abuse, but we can know enough so that they feel understood and heard. All of us want to know that someone "gets"us. Understands us deep down. An important part of empathy as a parent, is coming back out of their world and being the calm and stable one to help them deal with it. Staying in that world and feeling it for them is not helpful. Being there to walk through it with them is what is needed.

Attunement: It is pretty obvious when our car needs tuned up. It runs rough. If you take it in for a tune up it is a pleasure to drive. And so we need attunement with our family members. It is different from empathy. Empathy says "I feel your pain and I care." Attunement is more of a matching of mood so as to communicate together. If your child is feeling playful but is escalating, smiling and calming them in a kind but gently playful way is attunement. If your child is sad, then giving them a hug and giving them quiet time is attunement. If it is you and your spouse are going out on a date and you want to go some place loud and fun, and your partner is exhausted and just wants a quiet dinner and a movie, you tune in to them and give them what they need. The same is true of our kids. If someone makes a joke and you see the look on your child's face says "Ouch" then you tune into that and say something like "be careful of each other's feelings" and make eye contact with that child letting them know you saw.

Fun: Having fun in life is so important for maintaining emotional health. Our kids find it hard to have fun. They may sabotage an outing if they know ahead. Simple. Don't tell them ahead of time until they are to the point of being able to handle that. Keep family times short and simple. A quick game of "Apples to Apples", a run to a matinee, a spontaneous trip to Dairy Queen. Even those may be tough. Sometimes on the way, you can say, "If this much family time is too hard for you, let us know by doing .......(whatever your child usually does) We can handle it." Or afterwards you may say. "I know family time sometimes makes you feel (sad, scared, angry) I'm here to help you through it if you need it".  As the child can handle these short fun activities, then you can add a little longer.

Snuggling: Sometimes snuggling an angry child is the last thing we want to do.  Tough. As a parent, we love our kids in the way they need it. So snuggle, love and hug on your kids as much as they will let you. (appropriately, of course).  Our kids need it. All kids need it. Our kids need it more.

When they fail: Do not lecture, yell, or start throwing around punishments. Parent and "correct" lovingly. Remember we are building trust and safety at this point. Not teaching them "a lesson". I'm not saying let them get by with things. Our other kids are watching. But our approach is gently and loving, not harsh and punitive. Take the negative emotion out of the situation. I often tell myself to think of my child as though they are very ill and have done this. How would I talk to them then? Gentleness enters the situation easily then.

When they succeed: Tread lightly. Overly praising or making more of it then is worthy is obvious. None of us likes that. But give praise and  emotion for a job well done. Remember for them right now most strong emotion goes straight to anger, so keep it happy and proud, but not "too much".

Let your child know you adore them. You are glad you are their mom. They are a gift from God. We are blessed to have them in our lives. Do we some days want to tear our hair out. Oh yeah. Is it worth it? Oh yeah.


  1. Thank you for this! I'm going to link to it on my blog. I'm also speaking to a class of people who hope to adopt from foster care this week, so the timing is perfect. I throw around the term "therapeutic parening" a lot, but finding the words to explain it has been a challenge. Thanks for giving me the words!

  2. Thank YOU Last Mom. I'm sure you will do great with your class!

  3. I'm a parent of two children diagnosed with RAD. One is disinhibited while the other is inhibited. They are ages 9 and 11. We've been a family since they were 2 and 3 1/2. Unfortunately, we were clueless until about 2 years ago. It has been very difficult. They are largely dishonest about everything. It is nearly impossible to have a simple conversation on anything... no matter how insignificant. They attempt to control EVERYTHING. Instead of earning independence, we can't trust anything. Basic hygiene is incredibly difficult let alone more complex tasks/responsibilities. It seems that they sabotage EVERYTHING. We're beginning to realize we have all the tell-tale signs of PTSD.

    Though therapeutic parenting sounds logical, even hopeful, but I don't know where we would even begin to break this negative behavior pattern. Help!

    1. Bea... thank you for your honesty.
      I feel just like you and our kids sound identical.
      Our kids are now in gr 11 having been with us since they were 4 from Ukraine.
      I've worked so hard to parent therapeutically and it's still really hard after 12 yrs. Like you said they control everything and lie about everything even really easy things.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am a first-time, single parent of an adopted Reactive Attachment (RAD) child and there is no describable way to say how my world has been turned upside down. But I agree, after three years (half of that being a total war zone) showing my daughter over and over again that I loved her and creating a safe environment for her to have her rage attacks and still didn't abandon her, has worked wonders in turning her around. Today she is a very loving, caring and calm child with only occasional flare ups of rage.

  5. I think this is very well written, thank you!! Love the part about attunement.


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