Parents in crisis can’t parent therapeutically – so stop expecting us to.

My teenaged son called this evening to explain that he’d cursed his teacher out and thrown his desk across the classroom. He was upset because he’d lost his school issued Chrome book because he’d taken it home (not allowed, and not his first time) and had pornography on it. I listened patiently without judgement. He explained how his elopement from school ended in an entanglement in a pricker bush and contact with a concrete culvert which scratched up his arms and legs. He was covered with bloody scratches and scrapes. I expressed empathy as I sipped my coffee. I offered encouragement when he said he was going to try to earn back the Chromebook and even said I’d talk to the school to ask for a clear plan to work towards that goal. I told him I was proud of this choice to make tomorrow a new day.

Today I was a therapeutic parent superstar and here’s why:

Had this situation happened when my son was still living at home, I would have gone nuts. I would have been throwing out consequences and yelling. My anxiety would have been through the roof. I would have been angry, embarrassed, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

Back when my son was living at home, our family was in crisis. The situation had grown toxic. It took several years of his being in treatment programs, and my being in therapy and educating myself, to begin to find a positive way forward.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Adoptive and foster parents aren’t prepared for the early childhood trauma most kids coming into our families have experienced. We usually reach a crisis point before we learn about therapeutic parenting. By that time, we’ve become desperate and demoralized. Our mental and physical health is so degraded that we are barely surviving. Our kids are out of control. Our life is out of control. We can’t even manage to brush our hair in the morning much less use a calm and kind voice after our child spits in our face.

No doubt, our children need us to be that calm and steady, therapeutic parent, but at that point, we simply don’t have the capacity to do it. And given the our current relationship with our kids, it’s likely we aren’t even the best person to do it. Though few dare tell the shameful truth – we likely have come to a point where we really don’t like our kid. It’s a struggle to be nice to them. It’s difficult to not feel adversarial towards them. If we’re really being honest, some days we’re as out of control as our kids.

Unfortunately, few therapists understand this. They usually underestimate our child’s extreme behaviors and the level of crisis our family is in. They assume we have the ability to parent therapeutically and shame us if we don’t. For our families to heal and thrive, this is something that must be recognized and addressed.

The only clinician I know who is talking about this and teaching other clinicians about this is Forrest Lien of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. (If you are a parent, please follow him on social media to support his efforts on our behalf.)

Families in crisis do not have the capacity to parent therapeutically. This is why we must:

1) Get help to families before they are in crisis (this means pre-adoption training and post-adoption support),

2) Support parents and families in a holistic way. Help us get to a place where we can parent therapeutically.

3) Surround families who are in crisis with supports. Stop shaming us for being broken and demoralized. Give us a hand up.

Parents must be healthy and educated to parent therapeutically.

A note about therapeutic parenting:

There are no perfect treatments for developmental trauma. My son hasn’t been able to access the highly specialized treatment he needs. My response to his phone call today doesn’t solve the problem – I realize that. However, consequences, though perhaps “deserved” won’t work, and will only further escalate my son. What I must do is choose the response that is most likely to move the ball forward. My goal is for him to remain in school and to not get kicked out of the group home. My goal is to de-escalate the situation. I highly recommend A to Z Therapeutic Parenting for practical information on therapeutic parenting.

4 thoughts on “Parents in crisis can’t parent therapeutically – so stop expecting us to.”

  1. How ironic that you mention shaming & blaming.
    The very agencies the government tasks with helping families, use shame & blame to belittle & demoralize families in crisis.
    The entire mental health support system for children in the United States is broken.

    Such a great article of truth. Thank you!

  2. I cannot describe how much I appreciate this post. My children are my biological kids, however my husband has severe childhood trauma and ptsd which we did not even realize until after my oldest was born. For years, I felt like the worst mother because I struggled to parent in a gentle way with my generally sweet, but demanding oldest child. You put it perfectly, “Families in crisis do not have the capacity to parent therapeutically.” I was in crisis trying to figure out my husband’s triggers, trauma symptoms, and PTSD and unable to parent my sweet toddler (who also didn’t sleep through the night at 2-3) the way I envisioned. I felt horribly guilty and ashamed. All the parenting books and advice I got didn’t deal with MY CRISIS – it only added information on how I was failing, which made everything worse. Thankfully, my husband’s counselor and doctor have helped him stabilize, I am more equipped for self-regulation and self-care. Our family is a much more therapeutic place to be (most of the time). But I remember those crisis years well.

  3. Wow, this is an amazing article and is right there were we are at. I always thought I was such a failure as a Mom because, while there were times I did everything right in the crisis, a lot of times I was in high anxiety reactionary mode. And then the guilt piled on.

    1. Kris, I’m sorry to hear you are struggling. I personally know the challenge well. I hope this website has some helpful resources.

Leave a Reply