What is Therapeutic Parenting and How Can Foster Carers Put it into Practice?

Raising a foster child can be like navigating a maze – one full of surprising twists, turns and challenges. Every foster child has different, often traumatic, experiences that can lead to the development of attachment issues and challenging behaviours. This means that parenting them requires a unique approach.  

Traditional parenting methods typically rely on rewards and punishments to shape behaviours. However, for foster children who have endured adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, these approaches are less effective due to the profound impact of their trauma. 

Therapeutic parenting offers a healing-based alternative, working as a sort of compass to equip caregivers with the tools they need to understand and respond to the needs of traumatised children. 

In this blog, our experts from Children Always First [Link] explore how this nurturing parenting approach can make a difference to the lives of foster children.  

What is therapeutic parenting?

Foster children with ACEs don’t often respond well to traditional parenting methods due to the deep-seated effects of trauma. 

Trauma can rewire the neural connections in the brain, forming links between behaviours, thoughts and distressing memories. This can have a significant impact on their emotional well-being, leading to the belief that certain situations may trigger the recurrence of traumatic experiences. 

Therapeutic parenting involves setting firm but fair boundaries, establishing routines for stability, being honest and following the PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy) principles.

The main aim of therapeutic parenting is to reshape these neural pathways to create healthier cognitive and emotional responses. 

How can I practise therapeutic parenting? 

While there are a number of techniques that can be used to practise therapeutic parenting, the PACE model, developed by psychologist Dan Hughes, is a great place to start. The PACE model includes four key principles of communication: 

Playfulness 

This involves creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere to form a connection with your foster child. Adopting a light and playful approach, when appropriate, can really work wonders. It fosters openness and nurtures a healthy bond. 

Remember, it’s about providing a safe place that allows them to express themselves freely, so steer clear of harsh tones or lengthy lectures. Instead, opt for gentle guidance and understanding. 

Acceptance 

Your foster child’s response to their trauma can be complex. Understandably, their behaviours can be challenging, and there may be moments where you find yourself at odds with their actions. However, it’s crucial that you acknowledge their emotions and experiences without criticism or judgement. 

This does not mean accepting challenging behaviours but rather offering patience and understanding of what might trigger them. 

Curiosity 

This involves asking questions about why your foster child might be feeling or acting a certain way. Expressing curiosity in a sensitively phrased way and removing the blame and judgement from a situation can help diffuse tension and show the child that your intentions are to understand and not punish them.

Empathy

This is a reminder to approach difficult situations from the perspective of the child, whether or not you approve of their actions. This approach isn’t about condoning their behaviour or sweeping the issue under the rug; it’s more about offering support and empathy. 

This means patiently sitting alongside them as they navigate their emotions and providing comfort. By showing understanding and validation for their feelings, they know they’re not alone in their struggles. 

By following each of these principles, caregivers can form deeper connections with their foster children and help to create a safe environment for healing and growth. 

When to use the therapeutic parenting approach 

The therapeutic parenting approach is suitable for any child or young person in care. However, it’s important to understand that you might not make progress straight away, and the process requires long-term commitment.

Therapeutic parenting requires patience, helping your foster child move from an emotionally dysregulated state without punishment or isolation. This approach to parenting can be emotionally taxing, especially in difficult situations, which is why it’s important to practise self-care and look for support from your foster care network. 

Natural and Logical Consequences 

Trauma can rewire the neural connections in the brain. Children and young people need support forming links between behaviours, thoughts and distressing memories as previously discussed. 

Therefore, we need to use either natural or logical consequences to help rebuild new neural connections. Natural consequences are the life consequences that follow, usually when a boundary is broken and a child has made a bad choice. 

For example, a child/young person may choose to stay up later than their bedtime, therefore, the natural consequence is that they will be tired the following day. Logical consequences are applied to help the child to develop their cause and effect thinking. In this instance, the child might be encouraged to develop or review their bedtime routine to help them settle.  

All natural and logical consequences must be applied with empathy and not with shame for them to be effective. It is also important to note that it can take a long time for the new neural connection to be formed, which means that consistency is key, as is patience, perseverance and self-care.

Support with Therapeutic Parenting from Children Always First

At Children Always First [Link], we believe that every child deserves a nurturing environment to thrive. Our team is dedicated to providing ongoing assistance and resources to ensure that foster families feel equipped and supported every step of the way.

Together, we can create a safe and loving environment where foster children can heal and grow. For more information about our services, don’t hesitate to get in touch [Link] with our team today.