Therapeutic Parenting: Making a Difference for Adoptive Parents

This article stems from a place of experience and the kind of “on-the-job training” that is part of the course for all parents. I remember learning about many things during our training classes as we were preparing to adopt a child from the foster care system. We learned about trauma, attachment, and bonding, and we heard several scenarios of what could happen. We learned about creating boundaries, protecting our mental health, and providing for our future adopted child(ren). We had a thorough training through classroom time and benefited greatly from the amazing support group our agency offered weekly. I wanted to know what I didn’t know. I would listen to all that was said and observe unsaid things through the body language and interactions of adoptive parents and their children who were both adopted and biological. Because we already had two biological children, I would cling to every word blended families would share.

When our first daughter joined our family through adoption and from foster care, we started weekly visits with an amazing attachment therapist. She is a gifted therapist who has built a career helping families like ours and I am forever grateful for her insight and guidance. Just like most roles in life, education is vital but real-life experience is invaluable.

As I mentioned, we had biological kids. Our sons were 9 and 10 years old when our first daughter joined our crew. Our boys were sweet and gentle. They were rough and tumble. They were innocent. They benefited from living in a protective bubble made up of parents who loved each other and extended family who were actively involved in their home. Their lives up until that point were very sheltered and shaped by consistency and stability. Don’t get me wrong, they are human; they aren’t perfect. However, they were obedient, respectful and would always look me in the eye when I was disciplining them.

In stark contrast, our precious daughter came in like a tornado. Through no fault of her own, she had lived in a world where chaos was the norm. She felt comfort from drama and stillness was scary. I remember the first year of our life as a family of five felt like an eternity as we learned one another and tried to figure out how we all fit together. Those growing pains have left lasting scars on our hearts and have proven to me that we are survivors who fight for those we love.

She had only been with us for a couple of weeks and she and I were at a therapy session while the boys were at school. I remember our therapist asking how things were going. This was pretty typical of our session openers, but this time I broke down and cried. I was tired, unconfident, and felt like I was spinning my wheels. Parenting our boys seemed to come naturally to me and disciplining them made sense. It was thoughtful and produced real results. It was true discipleship. Now, I was at a complete loss as to how to get through to a child who didn’t know what my motives were. If anything, life had taught her to distrust authority, and pushing back when corrected was not only typical but also a form of survival.

So, when our therapist asked me how we were doing when situations came up where our daughter needed a correction, I told her we were utilizing time-outs. I remember telling her how we would tell our daughter to look us in the eye so we would know she was listening. I finished going over our basic rundown of talking about the offense and the consequence and then hugging before moving on. I told her it wasn’t working and we were at our wits’ end. She stopped me dead in my tracks when she asked me how I would feel if I was taught that looking into the eyes of an adult was not only scary but unsafe. How would I react to a new person asking me to do something that scared me? It was at this moment that something shifted in my thinking. I realized for the first time that along with all of the other changes that had taken place, we had to approach discipline differently. We could still utilize time-outs, but they shifted. The biggest thing that we needed to address with our daughter was that she was a scared little girl, and fear was the number one driving force in her life. She was a blend of the street smarts of a 15-year-old inner-city kid with the maturity and reasoning of a 2-year-old wrapped up in a tiny, underweight 5-year-old body. She could walk into a room and memorize who was there, where everyone was located, and masterfully assess who the alpha was in any situation. Her world functioned on self-preservation and she was a terrified little human. I remember feeling painfully inadequate and I cried. This is the moment I went from being a typical parent to a therapeutic parent.

What does it mean to be a therapeutic parent? I remember asking that same question. Therapeutic parenting is very structured parenting with the goal of a consistent, intentional focus on attachment and bonding. When a child is brought into your home by way of adoption, attachment is critical. When you think about a child who has come to you and essentially has been told that your home is their new home, you have to think about how scary that must be. Their world has changed in a moment and they have no idea what kind of place makes their new home. It would be completely terrifying and you wouldn’t know who to trust. So as parents, we went to work learning how to build trust and love.

Seven Tips for Therapeutic Parenting

Here you will find seven steps in building a home that functions on therapeutic parenting:

Understanding the Heart and Seeking Attachment

Therapeutic parenting is about understanding the heart and perspective of the child while seeking attachment over being right. So often we want to assert our authority and place the desire to be respected over everything. When you are parenting a child who has not always been parented by you, you have to stop trying to command respect and consider how experiencing different styles of parenting has shaped this child’s heart. 

The Flight-or-Fight Instinct

Therapeutic parenting is to understand that this child is likely going to experience heightened levels of cortisol and that their flight-or-fight instinct will be working overtime. When someone undergoes change and trauma, it is completely reasonable to consider that they are living in a state of survival. The process of learning to trust is a long-fought war and it is something that must be practiced and earned over time. Keep in mind: your child wants love and respect, too. 

Consistency

Therapeutic parenting is a house of cards built on the foundation of consistency. You must thoughtfully come up with a plan that prepares you for a basic response to situations. Consistency will help you and your child. When you have a plan, you will have helped yourself deal with what comes your way when anger and frustration take over. The ability to teach a child that you are going to love them when they are misbehaving or making mistakes develops over time.

Connection Over Consequence

Therapeutic parenting seeks connection over consequence. The goal of any parent is for a child to learn, grow, and mature. When you have obstacles to overcome with a child, you need to give them the tools to do so. Therapy has been invaluable for our child. Parents need to walk with humility and embrace outside help. Resources to help you be proactive in your connection while building your child up are readily available, you just need to look for them. I discovered early on that I am not good at seeing the forest for the trees. If I get overwhelmed or emotionally unregulated, I get tunnel vision. My focus is on surviving and I am often unable to see the many avenues I have at my disposal. 

Teaching Self-Regulation

Therapeutic parenting is simply lovingly parenting in a way that teaches self-regulation by keeping calm and staying close. Remember when I mentioned that we used plenty of time-outs as a go-to parenting choice? Well, we quickly discovered that our daughter would feel overwhelmed by this consequence. We would utilize time out as a time for our children to process what happened, adjust their behavior, and make a change. To our daughter, however, she would feel rejected and scared. She was looking at this from a completely different point of view from us. To her, she felt it meant she was unlovable and that we couldn’t even be around her because we now hated her. So, we started doing time-ins with her. She would have to become our shadow. Sometimes this would look like a literal shadow. She would follow me around the kitchen while I put dishes away. Sometimes I would fashion a baby carrier out of pashmina and wear her on my back while I made dinner. I should mention, she was five years old and about 40 pounds, but she needed to feel connected. Other times it would just mean she would sit next to me on the couch and we would read separate books. It has been six years since she joined our family, but this is something we still do. We still have plenty of time for time-ins. She can now benefit from spending time to calm down alone in her room, but connection is what she needs most.

Assessing and Meeting Needs

Therapeutic parenting is about assessing needs and meeting them through discipleship. You have to consider how you are being perceived when you are interacting with your child. This is a learned process and it takes practice. Are your eyebrows furrowed? Do your eyes show anger? Are you towering over your child? Thinking about how your child experiences you during discipline can change the way you discipline your child.

Giving Your Child Options 

Therapeutic parenting means giving your child options. When you are learning something new, options are so helpful. So many times, when a child is learning how to live in a new home, he or she will test boundaries. He or she wants to know how to survive in this new place. As parents, we desire for our children to not only survive but thrive. We want them to feel freedom and experience good things. Giving a child an option can help them to thrive. For instance, if you see a situation leading up to a stressful outcome, step in and be proactive. When we give a child an option, we are simply allowing them to do the right thing. How does this work? Here is a real-life example. Our daughter was coloring one day. She messed up and got frustrated. I knew that she was starting to escalate. We were sitting next to each other at the dining room table and I shifted in my seat so I could be closer to her. Now sitting hip to hip, our conversation unfolded something like this: “Oh wow, you sure did use a lot of beautiful colors in your picture; it really makes me feel happy when I look at it. You did a great job drawing those flowers! I can see that you seem to be getting upset. Can you tell me what you are upset about?” She explains that she is mad because she colored the tree the wrong color. I continue, “I can see how that would be frustrating. I saw that you almost scribbled all over your picture with your black crayon. You can do that or you can make more trees with different colors and this could be a picture of an amazing place you would like to visit. Or we can take a break from coloring and do something else for a while.” By giving her some options, I helped her to regulate and shift her thinking while simultaneously teaching her that it is okay to mess up. I affirmed her by validating what she felt.

Living in a home where therapeutic parenting is the norm is challenging at first. Over time and with diligent practice, I have become increasingly grateful for how beneficial it has been. As with all kinds of parenting, you need to remember to show yourself grace. You will make mistakes, but showing up every day and trying again also teaches your children how to thrive. Remember, some of the best lessons are taught and learned through failure. 

Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.