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What is Therapeutic Parenting?

“I’ve never met a child who can’t come to deep levels of healing”. Dr Karyn Purvis”.

Deciding to adopt a child will require that you consider many things. How practical it is, what your skills are, and most crucially the impact of a child’s early experiences. A child’s history, even those incidents that occur before the child is born will have a significant impact on their development, and attachment.  Children when experiencing abuse, domestic violence and trauma experience changes to their brain as a result of the stress involved. Stress and anxiety creates high levels of Cortisol. Cortisol can be thought of as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. 

“Cortisol is ten times more addictive than cocaine. The child lives with a constant feeling of fight or flight. High Cortisol levels in children can be like a smoke alarm constantly going off but with therapeutic parenting, this can be quietened or even switched off”. Rosie Jeffries. National Association of Therapeutic Parents (NATP)

A child’s brain aged 0 to 3 is still forming so, for example if a child cries and does not receive food or drink from their carer/parent, eventually the developmental pathway is turned off so she can’t distinguish if she is hungry or not. Creating Developmental Trauma.

Children who have suffered trauma in the first 3 years of their life (usually in the forms of neglect) experience parenting they cannot rely on, when their parents can’t consistently provide to their needs. These children will be insecurely attached to their carers as a consequence of their basic needs not being met. 

These children frequently go on to have emotional or behavioural difficulties and so need to be parented differently or therapeutically so their specific needs are met. They will also need assistance learning new strategies to manage stress, conflict and frustration. Children however young when they are removed, experienced a level of trauma and loss which they will need assistance to recover from. 

Parenting therapeutically is a highly nurturing way of parenting to make a child feel safe again around an adult as a carer. 

There are many types of therapeutic parenting. Three frequently used in adoption and fostering agencies are: 

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is one of the most influential theories currently informing the work of adopters and foster carers. It provides a great theoretical foundation and many of the recent advances in caring for abused and neglected children have stemmed from this theoretical approach. 

There are many names that you may associate with understandings of attachment theory. Here is a summary of the key figures.

John Bowlby was the man who developed attachment theory in the 1940s and 50s. His ideas were developed from the ideas of Freud and his colleagues. He formally and empirically demonstrated that children who experienced emotional difficulties in early life often went on to suffer behavioural psychological, and mental difficulties in later life. He went on to draw more precise conclusions about the predictable pattern of distress behaviour displayed by babies when they were separated from their mothers, even for short periods.

Bowlby moved on to conclude, from his observations, that babies form a strong bond with their primary carers which, when broken, causes immediate distress and the potential for long-term psychological damage.

Mary Ainsworth worked as a researcher with John Bowlby and then went on to contribute significantly to our current understanding of attachment, particularly the attachment style classifications that we use today.  (Click here for chart of attachment disorders. Thanks to survival to serenity).

Ainsworth developed this classification system via her use of “The Strange Situation” protocol. This is an experimental procedure that enabled her and her colleagues to assess the reactions of young children to separation and reunion with their primary caregiver.

This ability to classify attachment behaviours has contributed to a better understanding of optimal and problematic parenting and therefore enabled us to improve our childcare strategies and parenting interventions.

Dyadic Developmental Psycho-therapy (DDP)

This is also called attachment focused family therapy. It focuses on supporting the relationship between parents and children with developmental trauma, with the aim of healing the child’s past trauma and enabling them to feel safe in the care of adults. 

Therapeutic parenting was developed as a response to caring for children who have experienced loss trauma and abuse but is also extremely effective in parenting children who have not had these experiences. 

 This therapeutic approach is based on the PACE approach. A methodology which looks at how parents interact and bond with very young children. The primary aim of PACE is for the child to feel safe it is only then that they can learn to trust. 

PACE = Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy. 

Playfulness: Creating an environment of lightness and interest in your communication. 

Acceptance: Showing acceptance of their child’s feelings, wishes, thoughts, urges, perceptions and motives without judgement or evaluation. 

Curiosity: Showing how you understand the child’s behaviour. Curiosity also helps parents teach their child how to understand their own behaviour. 

Empathy: feeling compassion and the emotions of a sad or distressed child and actively showing this, so the child feels really understood. 

Hughes advises parents do not do this alone and find a guide, mentor, counsellor or maybe a parents group to extend their skills and get much needed support. 

National Association of Therapeutic Parents (NATP)

Sarah Naish, founder of the National Association of Therapeutic parents, (NATP) is a former foster care, adoptive parent and social worker. 

Sarah Naish’s adopted daughter Rosie Jefferies works with her mother providing therapeutic training, resources and training. 

Sarah has written a range of books for adopters and children using her experience of parenting 4 children using her principals. 


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