Therapeutic Parenting is a term used to describe the type of high structure/high nurture parenting that is needed for a traumatized child to feel safe and start relaxing enough that they begin to heal and attach. Learning to parent therapeutically is the single most important thing you can do to help your traumatized/attachment-disordered child.
At the center of most therapeutic parenting strategies is the concept of maintaining a highly structured AND highly nurturing environment. At first it sounds like these two things are impossible to do together, but experienced parents will tell you that even for children without trauma and attachment issues, all children need a nurturing environment that is structured. But it is extremely critical that a delicate balance of nurture and structure is achieved for traumatized children, here’s why…
Traumatized children (especially those who present with attachment difficulties) have a difficult time trusting their caregiver. They operate from a fear-based world view. It is because of this that creating a feeling of safety for the child, so they can let down their defenses and process all the positive things we parents want to give them, is so important. But, it is precisely this fear and intense need for safety that makes the balance between structure and nurture so critical.
It is important that children from a background of trauma feel safe – and structure makes people feel safe. But it could also feel cold and punishing. This is why providing high structure must be done in a calm, self-regulated manner (parent remaining calm). In therapeutic parenting, limiting a child’s choices, their activities or their access to stimulating things is necessary. But this high structure can also seem very controlling. This is why it must be done with an attitude of love and respect for the child. And the child, even if being oppositional, clearly hears the message that “this parent cares about me, about what I do, about how I behave.” The parent’s calm, loving structure also conveys the message of strength –that the parent is strong enough to handle the child’s deepest, darkest turmoil. The child starts to feel safe.
Who wouldn’t feel safe in a nurturing environment? You guessed it…a traumatized child! An environment that is too nurturing (and permissive) leaves the child with doubts as to if the parent is able to handle the seriousness of the child’s “big feelings”. While most healthy children respond positively to nurture and praise, traumatized children are often suspect of it, because it doesn’t match with their own self-image, "I’m just not good enough to deserve to be treated like this." Or they see the adult as gullible and not strong enough to understand all the feelings of anger and rage within the child. So your child may reject some of the most typical signs of nurturing, like hugs and gifts. He may “purposely” sabotage your attempts to be loving and kind. His fear-based brain almost appears to be craving the anger he creates in you as he rejects your nurturing attempts. Yet, nurture, even in very small micro-doses is critical to therapeutic parenting and to helping our children’s hearts to heal. Continuing to meet this child’s behaviors with a calm, regulated response is necessary. Loving eyes are key.
Parents are not perfect, so reaching the optimum balance between structure and nurture is very difficult. You will err on one side or the other. The goal is to recognize the need for both and to practice. And to self-assess to figure out which side you do seem to be erring on, and pull it back into balance. Remember: Parenting is a marathon; not a sprint. You will get another opportunity tomorrow to try again.
So How Do I Become a Therapeutic Parent?
You study and practice! Therapeutic Parenting is “Major League” Parenting, which means you need to approach this as if you were a “professional” parent. You need to train, study, and practice. You need to review how you did each day and strategize. You need to build a playbook, study it, and run the plays. You need to watch other Major League Parents in action, talk to them, ask advice, attend trainings, and practice some more. You also need to take care of yourself – eat right, exercise, get any medical attention you need. You need to treat yourself like the Major League player you are!
Below are some therapeutic parenting programs/parent trainers that ATN members have reported worked well for their families. Many parents find that studying each of these gives them more tools to use. Some strategies may work well for your family; others may not. And some strategies work better at different stages in the child’s development and healing.
Nancy Thomas/Families by Design http://www.nancythomasparenting.com/
Heather Forbes/ Beyond Consequences http://www.beyondconsequences.com/
Howard Glasser/The Nurtured Heart http://nurturedheart.com/
Katharine Leslie/Brand New Day Consulting http://brandnewdayconsulting.com/
Karyn Purvis/The Connected Child http://empoweredtoconnect.org/
Holly van Gulden/Dance of Attachment - http://danceofattachment.org/Index.html
Love & Logic - http://www.loveandlogic.com/
And, of course…workshops and webinars through ATN!
Important Tips for Becoming a Therapeutic Parent
- Don’t take your child’s behaviors personally.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself- i.e. physical exercise and nutrition
- Don’t forget to extend to yourself the same patience and grace you extend to your child.
- Remember that the child’s behaviors are based in fear (and sometimes in shame), even though they may be expressed as anger, aggression, violence and rejection.
- Remaining calm, regulated, and positive yourself is the key to making any strategy successful.
- If your child’s behaviors are triggering emotional issues for you, seek counseling for yourself (and for your marriage). Ask your child’s attachment therapist for recommendations.
- Reach out to other parents for support, both locally and through ATN.
- Build respite (breaks from your child) into your family’s life. This is important for each parent, for the parents as a couple (date nights) and for the parents to spend time with siblings.
- Read, study and practice.