Therapeutic parenting is a parenting approach which aims to meet the emotional and developmental needs of children, especially those who’ve experienced trauma, abuse or neglect. Therapeutic parenting focuses on the relationship between parent/caregiver and child, with the relationship itself being used as a way to repair previous trauma and boost confidence and self-worth.
The goal of therapeutic parenting is to create a safe and supportive environment that promotes the child’s healing and growth: a secure base, which includes both empathy and boundaries. Due to its association with healing, it’s a parenting technique often used with children who are in foster care or who have been adopted. It’s certainly something which myself and my colleagues have and would continue to encourage and support in Fostering and Adoption work.
So, what is therapeutic parenting, and what does it involve specifically? Read on for some of the key therapeutic parenting techniques:
Building a secure and healthy attachment between parent and child is key to therapeutic parenting. This involves creating a sense of safety, trust, and connection. Attachment Parenting is a term which was introduced in the 1980s by an American paediatrician called William Sears. It prioritises physical closeness alongside parental responsiveness and empathy. Attachment parenting might not be for everyone; if you’re interested in learning more, head here.
Learning more about attachment styles can also be really helpful. Attachment theory was defined in the 1950s by British Psychologist John Bowlby. He highlighted the significance of early parent-child interactions and the healthy (or unhealthy) bond developed by them. There are four attachment styles, which can influence the patterns you take with you into your adult relationships:
- Anxious/ Ambivalent – children will often have had mixed and unpredictable responses from their caregivers leading to distrust and trepidation in adulthood.
- Avoidant – children will more often than not have had their emotional and/or physical needs unmet and feel unloved and unimportant as adults.
- Disorganised – this attachment style is a mix of avoidant and anxious. Children or adults with a disorganised attachment can display anger and difficulty controlling their emotions.
- Secure – there’s usually been a warm and loving bond between parent and child.
It’s not easy to change your attachment style, but studies have shown it is possible. Therapy and positive friendships and romantic relationships can help. Find out more about attachment styles and how much they can change here.
Building a secure attachment can be achieved by parents or caregivers displaying warmth, affection, patience and also empathy, boundaries and consistency (which are discussed in more detail below).
Therapeutic parents dedicate time to understanding their child’s perspective and emotions. They validate their child’s experiences and feelings.
It’s important to remember that showing empathy does not mean you always have to agree with your child or accept their behaviour at all times. It really means that you should try your best to hear your child out, try and see where they’re coming from and how things might feel for them.
Empathy also means accepting your child for who they are, understanding and respecting their different personalities, and taking note of what it is that sets their hearts on fire.
If your child is an introvert and you need some advice on how to respond to this, take a look at How Best To Parent Introvert Kids.
We all want our kids to have empathy as they grow up and enter the world of adolescence and adulthood. The best way to pass the ability to be empathetic on to our kids is to display it ourselves. For more information on developing empathy in your children and, in particular your sons, read How Do We Boost Empathy in Boys and 16 Books To Boost Empathy in Boys.
Ensuring Consistency and Predictability
Providing a consistent and predictable environment helps children feel secure. This needs to involve consistent routines, expectations, and responses to behaviours.
If children know what to expect, they feel safe. Consider the anxious/ ambivalent attachment style discussed above. Children who have experienced different responses at different times often grow up to feel uncertain and untrusting.
Examples of consistency and predictability are:
- Bedtime routines – bath, teeth brushing and sleep at a regular time each night.
- House rules – explain these and ensure they’re understood. Try not to change the goalposts without explanation.
- Consequences – kids should (roughly) know what to expect in relation to the consequences of their behaviour.
- Response – if parents are sometimes extremely angry and verbally abusive and at other times accepting or uninterested, children will feel anxious about ‘which’ parent they may be faced with at any given time.
Helping with Emotional Regulation:
Teaching children how to regulate or ‘manage’ their emotions is an essential aspect of therapeutic parenting. This may involve teaching coping skills and providing support during times of stress.
Ideally, you want to be able to teach your child to ‘self-regulate’ (express emotions appropriately and stay in control). For more on this, and emotional intelligence generally, read The Five Components of Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional regulation may include:
- Talking through a challenging situation your child has recently encountered and thinking about how you might be able to deal with things differently next time.
- Identifying activities that your child finds calming (whether this is colouring in or using a punchbag) – so that these can be sought as soon as possible after strong feelings present themselves.
- Getting used to accepting and being able to identify feelings.
- Knowing what their triggers are and trying to reduce exposure to these if possible.
If your child has anxious feelings and you want to consider supportive measures, have a read of How NLP For Kids Can Help With Anxiety. NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) uses techniques such as Reframing and Pacing to help us change some of our limiting beliefs and behaviours. It can be used with kids and there are some great books out there which might be of use.
Learning About Trauma-Informed Parenting:
This one is particularly relevant for foster carers and adopters. However, it is important to remember that children can experience trauma in everyday life as well as following big life events. Trauma might be caused by the death of a parent, abuse or the pandemic. But it may also be caused by bullying, fears or something they’ve seen on TV. Being able to recognise and understand the impact of trauma on a child’s development is really helpful. Therapeutic parents approach parenting with sensitivity to the child’s past experiences.
A trauma-informed approach incorporates all of the therapeutic parenting techniques we’ve discussed so far. In addition, love, warmth and nurturing are all extremely important. Take a look at What We Can Learn From Foster Carers About Responsive Parenting for more on this.
Trauma-informed parenting means that you may need to adapt your parenting methods depending on what your child has experienced. Patience is needed, and you may wish to approach a professional (a psycho-therapist, mental health professional or social worker) for support.
Using Positive Reinforcement:
Therapeutic parenting techniques include encouraging positive behaviour through praise to try and reinforce it and increase the likelihood of it being repeated.
Rather than focusing on punishing negative behaviour, positive reinforcement is used to strengthen a child’s motivation to continue with desired behaviour.
Positive reinforcement can include praise, rewards or privileges. Try not to go overboard with positive reinforcement, however. Only praise where it’s due and keep it low-key. Kids will be able to tell a mile off if praise isn’t genuine. Similarly, it’s best if rewards and privileges are kept small and achievable. ‘Natural reinforcement’ is the best type of positive reinforcement. This is where a child (or adult) does something like study well for a test – and then achieves a good result. Some children just need a bit of time and help before they can achieve this type of positive reinforcment by themselves.
Boosting children’s confidence is also key. Learning about growth mindset principles and supporting your child in this regard is a really good plan. Take a look at 170 Affirmations for Growth Mindset for some ideas.
For boosting motivation in kids, have a read of 32 Quotes on Winners Attitude to Motivate Kids.
Putting in Boundaries:
While positive reinforcement and empathy are important, as we’ve discussed, setting limits and boundaries is also vital. Therapeutic parents, however, will put boundaries in place with a child’s best interests in mind. Boundaries act as a protective measure and create consistency and predictability. Boundaries are the framework whereby consistency and predictability are demonstrated and they help children understand the reasons for rules and consequences.
Healthy boundaries may include limits around screen time, regular bedtimes, a (mostly) healthy diet and completion of age-appropriate chores (such as keeping their bedroom tidy).
Children may become frustrated about boundaries sometimes, even when they’re used to them. This is where emotional regulation comes in: you’ll need to help your child manage their frustration about them. Communication is also key – children need to understand the reasons boundaries are put in place, even if they’re not always a fan.
Boundaries can be challenging for parents to put in place sometimes, particularly if a child displays angry or upset feelings about them. It’s normal for a child to push back against boundaries, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them. Try to stick with what feels right for you and your family, but keep in mind there will be times when you might need to be a bit more flexible.
Additional Therapeutic Techniques:
Depending on the needs of the child, therapeutic parents may use specific therapeutic techniques, such as play therapy, art therapy, or other interventions to support their emotional well-being.
Therapeutic parenting is often recommended for children who have experienced trauma, attachment difficulties, or other emotional challenges. Professionals such as therapists, social workers, or psychologists may work with parents and foster carers to develop and implement therapeutic parenting strategies. This approach recognises that healing from past experiences is an ongoing process and requires patience, commitment, and a deep understanding of the child’s unique needs.
Dan Hughes is a clinical psychologist who has written on the subject of Attachment-Focused Parenting and the treatment of children who have experienced abuse and neglect. He developed the concept of PACE (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy).
PACE parenting works well when you incorporate its principles into parenting generally:
P = Playfulness – Engage with your child in a playful manner to negate stress and defensiveness. I have no doubt that having fun is therapeutic!
A = Acceptance – Avoid strong senses of right and wrong. Give validity to what your child is saying and who they are.
C = Curiosity – Help the child to understand what is going on. Start sentences with “I wonder what you think? What do you think was going on?”
E = Empathy – Provide compassion and comfort. Let your child know that their feelings are not too overwhelming for you. Sit with them in their feelings.
More information on Dan Hughes and PACE can be found here.
I hope the question ‘What is Therapeutic Parenting?’ has been answered for you in this post and, whether you’re a foster carer, adopter or birth parent, you’ve learnt more about therapeutic parenting techniques. For some great resources and support on parenting teenagers, head to 15 Awesome Books on Parenting Teens.