An adopted child’s early experience can often mean they will struggle with day-to-day relationships. Instead of traditional parenting techniques, adopted children require a style of parenting which is more sensitive to their needs and helps them overcome these difficulties.  Although this can present certain challenges, being an adoptive parent is hugely rewarding and provides a stable, understanding and loving home children need.

During a child’s early years, they rely on their parents to meet their physical and emotional needs. How these needs are met can impact on how the child grows up, identifies themselves and understands the world around them.

Children who have their needs consistently met are likely to grow up feeling comfortable, safe, valued and loved. I like to use the analogy of a ‘wall’ made of development need ‘bricks’ a child who has consistently had their needs meet will display a strong and stable wall. On the other hand, a child who has experienced trauma, loss or having their needs inconsistently met is likely to display a wall with many bricks missing and a very unstable wall.

Adopted children’s early needs will have often gone unmet and they will have experienced some form of loss or trauma. Many will have suffered abuse or neglect, and all will have been separated from their birth families. Therefore, many will grow up feeling unsafe, uncared for and alone – their walls will be incomplete and fragile.

At Adopters for Adoption, as part of one of our support packages, we bring the analogy of the ‘wall’ to life and create the child’s early wall and identify the unmet physical and emotional needs experienced in early life and how these gaps may have affected the child’s later development and relationships. This then therefore requires different parenting techniques and support for adoptive parents, which we advise and support with.

A child’s early experience can often cause confusion, fear and anger and therefore they can struggle with relationships and day-to-day life. This can lead to behaviour, which is initially difficult to understand. Traditional parenting techniques are often unsuitable for children who have experienced such trauma and loss. ‘Time out’ can often be very frightening for a child who has experienced neglect.

These children need love, understanding and patience to help them overcome their difficulties and go on to lead confident and happy lives. This form of parenting works to restore unmet development needs and help to heal trauma and is often referred to as ‘Therapeutic Parenting’.

So what is Therapeutic Parenting?

Therapeutic parenting is parenting a child in a highly structured and nurturing way. It provides firm boundaries tempered with empathy and compassion. It means not taking your child’s behaviour personally, but understanding the roots behind the behaviour.

Therapeutic parenting in practice can look very different for each family and each situation. To an outsider, this approach can look like giving too much leniency or overly firm boundaries. For example, therapeutic parenting could mean the parent calmly offering food to a child who has just hurt someone because the parent suspects
the child is hungry. Once the child has calmed down, it could then mean walking them through fixing their mistake with a ‘redo’ something that will likely have a more lasting impact than dealing with the issue when the child is

It is important to recognise that trauma and attachment issues have an impact on the nervous system and brain development. These issues can affect every aspect of a child’s life. Their responses are often reactive, based in
flight, fight or freeze. Once we know that a child may have trauma or attachment challenges, there are many things we can do to meet their needs.

One of the most important things a parent can do is focus on maintaining connection with their child. When dealing with a child who is acting out, this can be one of the most difficult things to achieve. However, the rewards are incredible for both the parent and child.

At the centre of most therapeutic parenting strategies is the concept of maintaining a highly structured and highly nurturing environment. It is often thought that these two things are very difficult to do together, however all children, especially those with trauma and attachment issues need a nurturing environment that is also structured.
It is important that children from a background of trauma feel safe – and structure makes people feel safe.

Consistent boundaries held in place by loving, yet firm parents is something the child can depend on. However, structure without nurture can often feel cold and punishing. Therefore, this is why providing high structure must be done in a calm and self-regulated manner (parent remaining calm, with body language that conveys love and self-confidence).

In therapeutic parenting, limiting a child’s choices, their activities or their access to stimulating things is necessary. Establishing boundaries and routines are very important.  However, this high structure can also seem very controlling and children whose previous lives have been full of chaos will often find this level of control very uncomfortable to begin with. This is why it must be done with an attitude of love and respect for the child.  And for the child, even if being oppositional, needs to clearly hear the message that ‘this parent cares about me, about what I do and about how I behave’ The parents calm, loving structure also conveys the message of strength. Over time, the child will start to feel safe and secure.

Moving on from structure, it is equally important to think about nurture. Often, parents expect their child to have a reciprocal relationship with them – one where the child gives back positive emotions, where the two feel attuned and attached. The parent of a traumatised child is often very surprised to learn that these children do not and cannot
respond in that way. Often the more the parent tries to nurture and shower the child with loving interactions, the more the child pushes away. An environment that is too nurturing can often feel foreign to the child.

Nurturing attempts can feel to the child as too permissive and can often leave the child with doubts as to if the parent is strong enough to handle the seriousness of their ‘big feelings. While most secure children respond positively to nurture and praise, a child who has experienced loss and trauma are often suspect of it, because it does not match their own self-image and self-belief. Therefore, the child may reject some of the most typical acts of nurturing, like hugs and gifts. They may purposely sabotage the parent’s attempts to be loving and kind. Their fear based and
shame based brain almost appears to be craving the anger and disappointment they create in the parent as they reject their nurturing attempts.

Nurture, in very small doses is exactly what the child needs and is critical to helping the child’s heart heal. Continuing to meet the child’s behaviours with a calm, regulated response is necessary. Remember, no parent is perfect; reaching the optimum balance between high structure and high nurture is very difficult. The aim
is to recognise the need for both and to practice. Here at Adopters for Adoption we offer different support packages to advise and support parents to help them feel more equipped when managing their child’s behaviours and emotions in a therapeutic approach.