Therapeutic Parenting is a highly nurturing parenting approach, with empathy at its core.
The very earliest years of a child’s life provide experiences that are critical for the child’s later development and ability to make close relationships. When children experience warm, sensitive and responsive parenting they will develop a secure attachment. Many children who have been adopted, however, are likely to have experienced disruptive and even traumatic childhoods. Traumatised children often find it difficult to let go of their defensive behaviours or fears and insecurities, which can make it difficult for them to develop physically, emotionally and socially.
Structure & Nurture
For children to develop well, learn independence and build secure attachments, they need to feel safe and loved first. Therapeutic parenting requires putting firm boundaries and routines in place to keep them safe and to support them to manage even minor changes and transitions. Dealing with challenging behaviour requires a different kind of approach than we would use for children who have not experiences past trauma – imagine how scary a “time out” would feel for a child with history of abandonment.
Children who have a history of neglect or abuse might be quite resistant to a caregiver posing structure on their lives, so it must be done with an attitude of love and respect for the child. Children need reassurance and to feel warmth from their parents. A smile, physical contact and comfort can help the child to understand that you care for them and wish to keep them safe. Try to communicate your empathy for how your child is feeling by naming and validating their feelings to help them gain an understanding of their own emotional state i.e. “I can see you’re feeling really angry at the moment.”
A therapeutic approach to parenting can help children learn how to make safe attachments and overcome developmental gaps, by repairing the hurts from their past experiences and reducing feelings of shame.
Therapeutic Parenting is a nurturing parenting style developed from consistent, empathic, insightful connected responses to a child’s distress and behaviours, allowing the child to begin to self-regulate and develop an understanding of their behaviours, and ultimately form secure attachments and minimise the impact of childhood trauma.
Therapeutic Parenting differs from ‘Traditional Parenting’ in that it does not use time out/any form of corporal punishment, shame the child, use reward charts, or expect the child to self-regulate or feel empathy and remorse.
Therapeutic Parenting uses firm but fair boundaries and routines to aid the development of new neural pathways in the brain so children may gain trust in adults. And so their lower brain (survival brain) may connect with their higher brain (prefrontal cortex/thinking brain) so they can link cause and effect.
Using boundaries and routines helps children to understand there is consistency and predictability in their lives (they know they will have breakfast, lunch, and tea plus snacks). Therapeutic Parenting advises you to use visual timetables to support your children with this.
Respond with empathy using the PACE model (playfulness to connect and diffuse a situation, acceptance of the child whilst not accepting of aggression, curiosity to detect your child’s need, all steeped in empathy).
Therapeutic Parenting is effective for ALL children, not only those who have suffered trauma. It simply works more quickly with neurodiverse and securely attached children.
Sarah Naish is a qualified Social Worker, an adoptive parent to five children and a champion of therapeutic parenting. She has written several books on Therapeutic Parenting, including:
She has also produced a series books aimed at children and adults, using different characters who demonstrate different aspects of behaviour linked with trauma and attachment difficulties. View a comprehensive list of these books here. She also has a YouTube channel teaching Therapeutic Parenting techniques. Watch her video about Therapeutic Parenting below.
For More Information
- The National Association of Therapeutic Parents offers resources and training on therapeutic parenting
- The DDP Network: a body that promotes therapeutic approach to parenting adopted and looked after children.
- Meeting Children Where They Are: The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics
- PACE Model; Dan Hughes’ PACE Model of parenting
Tips for Therapeutic Parenting with teenagers
- Hopefully at this point in your parenting journey you are familiar with the principles of Therapeutic Parenting, however, it may be of benefit to revisit some of the resources highlighted in the early years sections.
There are some basic tips for parenting teens.
- Be open with your child about their birth families and their life stories (before adolescence if possible). How is your child like/unlike their birth parents? What interests do they share? What differences are there? Understanding where they come from will help them to understand more about themselves.
- Discuss your own shared interests or personality traits with them. If they are able to see similarities between you and them it will help them to still feel connected to you as they develop their own sense of identity.
- Don’t hide your flaws. Adolescents may carry a sense of shame about where they come from and what this means about who they are. Being able to learn to about your flaws and your mistakes may help them to feel more connected to you and help to reduce their own sense of shame.
- Give them choices, but set clear boundaries. Giving them the freedom to choose what they do, what they wear will make them feel more independent but boundaries are still important for their own safety and gives them a sense of security, too.
- Make the family home a space of food, comfort and joy. Continuing to nurture your teen will reassure them that you still love them and they can still depend on you when they need to. You can do this by still feeding them even if they won’t eat with the family and leaving notes under their bedroom door when they refuse to engage with family life to show they are still being thought about and refer to how angry they may feel after an understanding to help to repair the relationship.
- Use a playful tone of voice. Keep the relationship light and playful at time and use humour with them. Try to avoid sarcasm, however, as this can trigger a sense of shame.
- Connection before correction. Continue to connect with your child as you set boundaries and expectations with them to show them that you still love them even when you’re angry.
- Help them think about healthy ways to become independent. Eg by talking about when you left home, your fears and needs, how you planned for this and how your parents helped