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Taking a Therapeutic Approach to Parenting

When you adopt an older child, or a child who has traveled through the foster care system, there may be certain behaviors and tendencies you will have to navigate together. It is common for children who have been in these situations to have conditioned responses to stress or trauma; defense mechanisms born from years of experience. Parents in these situations may find themselves overwhelmed, resentful, or totally lost. Take a step back and take some time to learn about and absorb the environment(s) your child came from. In learning about your child’s past you can better understand their present and future. 

If you have adopted a child coming from foster care, it’s important to educate yourself on the types of trauma they may have experienced, as this will be a catalyst for certain behaviors. Your child may have been removed from a situation where there was abuse, addiction, neglect, or mental health issues; they may show similar behaviors to what they have witnessed in the past. If your child was neglected, they may appear angry or distrustful of other adults. Taking a compassionate approach will help you go much further in connecting with your child, and showing them that you are a safe space.

Here are some other ways of practicing therapeutic parenting:

  • Use of positive and gratifying rewards for positive behaviors
  • Maintaining a calm and even facial expression and voice tone in times of conflict or disagreement
  • Implementing structure and boundaries, and adhering to them
  • Follow through and consistency—the more consistent you are, the better

Build structure into your day. Children that come from chaos often crave a structured environment. This does not mean you have to set rigid schedules; it just means you should focus on being consistent in your parenting.  Maintain a daily schedule, and be extremely communicative if that is going to change. Sometimes a sudden change in schedule or routine can throw a child into a tailspin. By maintaining a routine, you are harboring a therapeutic and safe environment where there are no surprises for a child. Building trust takes a while, so do not be discouraged if all issues are not resolved immediately. Let them adjust to the daily routine and take it day by day from there.

It’s impossible to unravel a lifetime of trauma in a short time span. Patience is key. Set the example and demonstrate the same behaviors you would expect from your child. In addition to a positive parenting approach and a structured environment, find professionals in your area to help your child work through their trauma and be a support system. The stronger your community the better, for you and your child.  

For more information on parenting a child with a traumatic past, visit the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s behavior portal.