WHEN I was preparing to adopt, I remember swaggering into my first “skills-to-parent” meeting with our local authority, confident there was very little the young social worker could teach me about being a dad: I had had three children in three years, and could also boast of heaps of youth-work experience. I was going to ace the class on therapeutic parenting before it had even started.
It took just minutes for all my confidence to evaporate. It turned out that all my previous experience was a disadvantage when it came to parenting children who had been in care, because traditional parenting techniques do not work for the estimated 70 per cent of children who have suffered neglect and abuse.
Therapeutic parenting, however, is borne out of an understanding of the traumatic, or toxic, parenting that children in care have often been exposed to. And it understands that damage done to the physiology of a child’s brain — including the parts responsible for planning and reasoning, mood and impulse control — can be minimised by nurturing care. It promotes nurturing parental responses to foster children’s feelings of safety and connectedness, influencing for the good their future learning, behaviour, and health.
For example, imagine you are walking down the road with your family when a large dog walks past and snarls, scaring your adopted four-year-old. He jumps away and runs into the road, where he narrowly escapes being hit by a car. The instinctive reaction of most parents would be to shout something like: “Get out of the road. Come here. Never jump into oncoming traffic. You frightened me, and you nearly got yourself killed.”
Most birth children could cope with this kind of reaction from a parent: it appeals to their inbuilt senses of shame (”you frightened me”) and self-preservation (”you nearly got yourself killed”). It would even be possible to use the incident to teach children about the Green Cross Code. But a traumatised child would not cope with this reaction.
In children who have suffered from a lack of nurturing from birth, their senses of shame and self-preservation is missing, or immature. So all they hear is shouting. This means that, first, they are frightened by the dog; then by the car; then by the parent figure. It is a pattern with which they are all too familiar, and it affirms what they subconsciously already believe: that the world is a dangerous place, whatever they do.
The overwhelming emotional overload to a simple reaction, therefore, can trigger previous trauma, and put the child into the “flight or fight” or even “freeze” response. In this state, any attempts to offer comfort are likely to be rejected. And any lesson in road safety will not be assimilated. Instead, the child remains in trauma.
Therapeutic parenting calls for parent figures to use strategies to remain calm, and to diffuse situations quickly to help a child regain his or her equilibrium. A therapeutic-parenting response in this situation, therefore, could have been: “Thank goodness you are all right. It was OK to be scared by the dog, and your body told you to run. Shall we go home now, or go to the park?”
This kind of response goes against the grain. It has to be learned. But, by managing our own emotions, adoptive parents can model a way of behaving which helps a child to manage his or her own emotions. By affirming that we believe that the child’s safety is important (”Thank goodness you are all right”), and that their reaction was understood (”It was OK to be scared’), and by giving back some sense of control by giving choice (”Shall we go home now, or go to the park?”), we can use difficult situations to help rebuild a child’s stress-management and self-esteem. The lesson in road safety can wait.
Trying to put oneself in the shoes of a child, and looking at the deeper issues behind his or her behaviour, is the key to therapeutic parenting — and to learning to remain calm. I heard a story about a girl who continually stole from her foster family (stealing and shoplifting are common among adopted teens, who often subconsciously feel that their families have been stolen from them). In this case, the mother sat down with the foster child and explained why stealing was unacceptable. Then she presented the child with her most treasured necklace and locket, and asked the child to keep it safe for her.
This mother understood that stealing was a symptom of her foster daughter’s need for security, and addressed it by tangibly assuring her that she was committed to a long-term trusting relationship with her. And she is not alone: I have met many other adoptive parents who have seen slow but sure change in their traumatised child’s ability to cope with family life. The rewards of parenting therapeutically can be incredibly fulfilling for both parent and child.
For me, it has been a steep learning curve to relearn responses, and I have lost a lot of swagger on the way. But I have seen this approach work in children’s lives in helping them to begin to rebuild their sense of security and acceptance, which is fundamental to everything they will learn in life.
Developing a network of training, encouragement, and support are vital to all parents on this long-term journey of healing for their adopted or fostered children. My prayer is that the Church becomes more aware of the needs of looked-after children to receive a different kind of parenting. And that we will also become more supportive and less judgemental about foster carers and adoptive parents, as they attempt to look after and nurture their children.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of the Christian adoption and fostering charity Home for Good. www.homeforgood.org.uk