What is Therapeutic Parenting?

Traditional, behavioural parenting styles can often be viewed as punitive, i.e.,  based on the idea that if a child is punished for displaying a particular behaviour, the child will learn that the behaviour is not acceptable. However, when a child has lacked an emotionally secure base, such as those we specialise in working with, this type of approach is often ineffective. Children and young people who have experienced trauma, such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, or repeated attachment disruptions lack an internal sense of safety and they experience high levels of shame. Feeling unsafe and experiencing high levels of shame can drive a young person to exhibit behaviours we might consider undesirable (e.g., aggression, lying, blaming others). Adopting a behavioural approach to parenting and punishing undesirable behaviours is often unhelpful. The child or young person often does not trust in the relationship with their carer (as it is often carers who have harmed them in the past), and as such, this only serves to increase their feelings of shame and worthlessness. In turn, the behaviours associated with them increase. 

Research tells us that there is an alternative approach that is more effective. This is known as ‘therapeutic parenting’. Therapeutic parenting is a high nurture approach, which aims to build safety and security in the child-carer relationship (something the young people we work with often lack).

Therapeutic parenting is different to behavioural parenting in lots of ways, but the key difference lies in where we focus our attention. Instead of focusing on and responding to the behaviour a child has displayed, the therapeutic parent will focus on the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the child that may be driving the behaviour. 

A Key Concept – The Iceberg Metaphor 

The iceberg metaphor can help us to remember that there are often things we do not see (the bottom of the iceberg) that are driving the behaviours that we do see (the top of the iceberg). If we were to adopt a behavioural approach to parenting, we would respond to (punish) the behaviour we see at the top of the iceberg. A therapeutic parent would take a step back and ask themselves “what might be going on underneath the iceberg?”.

Two Hands of Parenting – Connection and Correction

Therapeutic parenting is not about never having any consequences. Children need to learn that there are consequences to their actions. However, we need to help our young people to feel safe and support them to regulate their emotions first! To do this, we need to remember that there are two hands of parenting: (1) connection and (2) correction. 

Connection before Correction – 6 Steps

  1. Notice: What is happening? What immediate steps do I need to take to ensure everyone’s safety?
  2. Check Your Own Response: Pause and think ‘am I regulated?’ ‘Can I stay open and engaged?’ ‘Do I need a break first?’
  3. Regulate: Help the child to regulate their emotions. Show lots of empathy and acceptance.
  4. Curiosity and Understanding: Think about what could be going on under the iceberg (i.e., ‘what is my best guess of the child’s emotions?’).
  5. Correction: Reflect on what has happened with the child. Is there a natural consequence? Can they make amends if someone was hurt?
  6. Relationship Repair: Ensure the child knows they are unconditionally loved and that you will get through things together.

Top Tips:

  • Keep Routines and Boundaries Consistent – Consistent routines and boundaries provide structure and predictability for the child, which helps them feel safe and secure. Make and maintain routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and other daily activities to create stability in the child’s life.
  • Prioritise Helping the Child to Regulate– Remember to focus on what is going on ‘beneath the iceberg’, rather than responding to or punishing the behaviour. ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Empathy’ from Dan Hughes P.A.C.E approach are key to helping the child to regulate their emotions.
  • Be the Calm in the Storm – When a child is dysregulated, we need to ensure we remain calm. It is important that we are aware of our own feelings and triggers, and that we are able to manage these effectively.
  • Be a Feelings Detective – There is often a lot going on ‘underneath the iceberg’ driving a behaviour. It is our role as a therapeutic parent to be curious (C in PACE!) about that. What might they be thinking? Feeling? What previous experiences might have been triggered?
  • Allow Natural Consequences – There are often natural consequences to undesirable behaviours, and it is important that children learn this. E.g., if something is broken, they will naturally need to go without it and contribute to getting it fixed.
  • Think ‘time in’ not ‘time out’ – When a child is displaying undesirable behaviours it can be tempting to disconnect (e.g., telling a child to go to their room to calm down). Remember, connection is the priority. We want to show our young people that we are there to support them through their difficulties.

At Meadows Psychology Service, we recognise the vital role that various staff play in supporting children and young people to thrive. That is why we provide specialist, trauma-informed support, training, and advice to staff working with children and young people across a range of childcare settings, including:

We also deliver therapeutic work for local authorities including emotional health and wellbeing services for Wigan Local Authority, and the Herefordshire Intensive Placement Support Service. For more information, please get in touch via our online contact form.

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